How Involved Dads Boost Their Baby's Brain Development
We all know that a baby needs a loving mother to maximize its chances to grow up as a happy and successful child. But how important is a dad?
When my son was born I quickly had the impression that he didn't need me at all. He was constantly seeking contact with my wife, and barely noticing me. I was already telling myself that I would get more involved once he could speak and walk, and that in the meantime I could focus on doing well in my career. At least I was contributing as the main provider for the family.
However, it wasn't long before my wife was ready to chop off my head for not lifting a finger to help her with our son. I quickly realized that my days as a passive dad were numbered, and that I had a choice between accepting some father duties, or becoming a headless horseman. You can guess which option I picked.
But I do have to admit that despite good intentions, becoming more involved was a bit scary, initially. After all, our son looked so small and vulnerable. I had no idea what to do with Rafael and thought I would never be able manage him the way his mother does.
So I started helping with some basic chores – after receiving exact instructions from my wife – like feeding him and changing his diapers. To my surprise, Rafael and I quickly developed our own special bond, and were soon spending more and more quality time together. Ever since, our moments together have become a daily highlight.
This is when I started realizing what an important role I could have in his upbringing. In fact, more and more studies are confirming the benefits of involved dads. For example, one study found that babies with absent fathers suffer from poorer peer relationships and school results later on in life. Another study suggests that babies with involved dads enjoy better language skills.
Involved dads = successful children
So why are dads so important for the development of our little ones?
Well, first of all,
a baby needs full time attention. A mother can probably handle all the baby’s basic needs, often at the expense of feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. By having two parents involved, we can instantly improve both the quality and quantity of care and guidance a child receives.
Secondly, the first two to three years of a baby’s life are so crucial for brain development (and hence for a positive childhood) that any productive stimulation is extremely valuable. A baby’s intelligence and character are not genetically hardwired. Experiences and influences from significant people shape the architecture of a child's brain. This leads to the simple equation: the more positive stimulation a child enjoys, the more opportunities she or he will have to develop.
Let me share two facts that really got me thinking about how crucial it is for a baby to have both parents involved:
1 | A baby's brain develops at a tremendous speed.
A child is born with almost the same number of neurons as adults, but stored in a brain that is about 75% smaller, and with almost no neural connections. During its first six months, this brain will double in size, and by the age of three it will have reached around 80% of the size of an adult brain.
During this time, the simple structure of a baby’s brain quickly transforms itself into a true network of neural connections, forming more synapses than it ever will again during adult years – up to 700 connections a second. In other words, this is the time a baby uses every experience to learn and evolve its cognitive functions.
For example, the first year is crucial for learning languages as a baby will be extremely sensitive to various sounds. At the same time, this window of accelerated learning is not available for too long, as this surplus of neural connections will eventually be eliminated in what is often referred to as ‘’blooming and pruning."
Around one year, the connections for a child's native language will have been reinforced at the expense of other sounds. This is why I speak German to our son, my wife speaks Russian, and together we speak English. While this may sound a bit bizarre, it also means we are stimulating his brain, and hopefully facilitating his ability to be fluent in several languages.
2 | Dads have a unique way of interacting with their children.
Studies have shown that although mothers usually spend more time with their little ones, fathers have a greater influence with regards to a baby’s later success or failure at school or with friends. This is probably because the relationship between fathers and children evokes such powerful emotions.
For instance, fathers often engage in more physical, exciting types of games than mothers, allowing a baby to experience a whole range of feelings. By doing so, dads not only encourage an infant to take the occasional risk, but also help him or her to regulate emotions, one of the key characteristics of happy and successful people. This is especially so if a dad uses a positive and encouraging tone while communicating with his child.
A baby also watches for cues from its father to distinguish behaviors related to play time from those that signal that it's time to wind down and relax. Over time, your child learns the invaluable skill of self-soothing, something that even many adults don’t master properly. By learning to manage their own inner world, it becomes much easier for children to relate to other people, which is why they become so much more social.
The bottom line is that involved dads make a huge difference for the development of babies, and help them prosper with social relationships and academics later on in life.
At this stage you may be concerned that by investing more time into your family, you will be losing valuable time working on your career. I can tell you that initially I was wondering how I would manage scheduling quality time with my son, while remaining efficient at work.
I quickly realized, though, that planning some family time gave me an opportunity to structure my day with more discipline, become more productive, and use the joyful moments together to boost my energy and motivation at work. In fact, my son was becoming the best possible high performance coach, but an angel-like and pooping one, which made his support even more awesome.
Remember that the earlier you become involved with your baby, the better. Sharing core duties like diapering, feeding, bathing, or otherwise caring for your baby from an early age creates a bond from the start, and will increase the likelihood of spending regular quality time together later on.
The best news is that you don’t need to be amazing in your fathering skills: According to W. Bradford Wilcox
, director of the National Marriage Project, even ‘’good enough dads’’ appear to make a real difference in their children’s lives.