Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in a room with a bunch of new dads, and ask them what life with an infant is really like? That’s exactly what you can do at Boot Camp for New Dads, a program available in more than 100 hospitals nationwide.
“Babies can be scary, especially for men,” says Greg Bishop, founder of this unique crash course in fatherhood and a father of four. “New fathers need to be invited in, to be given the chance to feel competent.”
So with the goal of helping men enjoy their babies and get involved from the start, he created a novel orientation to parenthood: He invited new dads to bring their babies into a classroom so that the expectant fathers — the students — could ask questions covering everything from holding a baby to identifying different kinds of burps and poops.
One testament to the success of the program: Nearly half the “rookie” dads ask to come back to speak to a class once their baby is born.
Here, Bishop shares the organization’s top ten tips to help dads-to-be hit the ground running.
Learn from the best.
Ask the hospital nursery personnel to show you how to change, swaddle, and bathe your baby. One dad was determined to change his baby’s very first diaper — while in the hospital and surrounded by staff and family. “I wanted to set the tone that I’m here to play,” he said.
You may practice these skills in a childbirth preparation class, but it may seem more daunting when you’re handling your newborn. Just ask the nurses to show you how to do these basic tasks. You’ll all benefit: No one will typecast you as a noninvolved father, you can become a pro at something baby-related early on, and you and your wife can start sharing responsibility.
“No matter what happened during pregnancy — whether or not you played Mozart to the fetus — the rubber hits the road when the baby is born,” says Bishop. “Jump in now — the more you do with your baby, the quicker you’ll bond.”
Trust your instincts.
You will become the expert on your own baby. “The most nervous dads are afraid to hold a baby,” says Bishop. “We’ve found that if we put another guy’s baby in their arms, they’ll hold him very stiffly as they try to do it exactly right, but within five minutes, they relax and mold into the baby.”
A few such encounters go a long way. Formerly nervous new dads tell expectant dads: You don’t have any choice but to get in there and do it. Change the diapers, comfort the baby, trust your instincts, and in two days, you’ll feel like a natural.
Be patient and positive.
When it comes to your partner, communication and support are the keys. “Dads always say that the most important thing in the early weeks is being patient and taking care of mom,” says Bishop.
New fathers typically advise the rookies to cut their wife plenty of slack: She’s been through the physical trauma of childbirth and her whole life has been turned upside down by the arrival, however joyful, of this new baby.
Meanwhile, even if you’ve had a hard day at work, it probably sounds like a vacation to her. So do be patient and supportive. Bishop’s standard advice: Call your wife in the afternoon, when she may be feeling as if the day will never end, and let her know you appreciate what she’s doing.
Stand your ground.
Don’t let anyone push you away from your baby — not your mother-in-law, your mate, or your boss. It’s easy for a new father to feel excluded from taking care of a baby, or that he can do nothing right.
“Dads may well do things differently from moms,” says Bishop, “and that’s okay. If it’s a problem, go into another room and try things your way.”
And make sure you spend time alone with your baby, especially in the first month. “You’ll have problems,” says Bishop, “but the key thing is you’ll get through it, one way or another. And once you do, your anxiety level diminishes.”
Veteran dads agree: A little bit of time alone with an infant makes you feel like a father. And it’s the only way you’ll reach the milestone of learning to comfort your crying baby yourself — rather than turning him over to someone else.
“Dads tend to be very creative problem-solvers when given the chance,” says Bishop, “whether they’re working out how to soothe a baby or to help him stay asleep during the critical transition from Dad’s arms to the bassinet.”
Learn as a family, just the three of you.
Don’t let “help” become interference. Relatives who want to help can be a mixed blessing — and new mothers and mothers-in-law can easily push a father into the background.
“Lots of dads say they weren’t able to be themselves until their relatives left,” says Bishop, “but these newborn days are a crucial part of forming a family.”
Good advice: Consider putting family members up in a hotel — not your home — and asking them to help with the house, not the baby. This way mom, dad, and the baby can focus on each other.
Your baby is portable.
You can take your baby anywhere, so don’t get caught up in fretting about what you can’t do. You won’t ruin your baby’s schedule if he naps away from home. In fact, young babies will often sleep anywhere.
“Get out together with the baby,” says Bishop. “Otherwise, you’ll all feel trapped.”
You will get frustrated.
“When you don’t know why a baby is crying, it’s easy to get frustrated,” says Bishop.
When you’ve checked out every possible reason for discomfort, know that babies sometimes just need to blow off steam while you look at them adoringly, but also know your limits. Sometimes you just need to put the baby in his bed and shut the door for a few moments to collect yourself. That’s okay, too.
Make eye contact.
How do you play with a young baby? By looking and talking to him. He’ll look right back. “Eye contact is a big part of bonding and spending time with your baby,” says Bishop.
Remember, this too will pass.
When times are trying, keep this in mind: This baby will be grown up before you know it.
Relax and enjoy the ride.
Make it a daily habit to play with your new baby, check out his tiny little feet, play peekaboo, sing, and read. Veteran dads often say that there’s nothing more relaxing than having a baby fall asleep on your chest. As sappy as it may sound, Bishop finds that men have no idea how much their baby will mean to them.
Parenthood often comes at a time in a man’s life when he has to work 60-hour weeks, and some dads believe they can make up for lost time later.
“You can’t,” says Bishop. “So make sure that you do spend time — even if it’s just an hour a week — alone with your baby now.”
Best Books for Dads
The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be
By Armin Brott and Jennifer Ash
Chances are, if this book is on a man’s bedside table, it was a gift. But a good gift—this book is a useful male counterpart to every woman’s dog-eared copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In each month-by-month chapter, the writers reveal what your partner is going through, what the baby is up to, and most important, what a father-to-be may be feeling. It’s an appealing book. You’ll find solid information, leavened with personal anecdotes, insight, and even cartoons. But the image of Brott as an ultra-sensitive, hyper-involved partner in pregnancy could be daunting to many guys.
Standout feature: Tips to help men deal with conflicting emotions.
What could be better: Needs more thoughts and experiences from other fathers.
She’s Having a Baby—and I’m Having a Breakdown: What Every Man Needs to Know—and Do—When the Woman He Loves Is Pregnant
By James Douglas Barron
This guy’s book manages to convey a lot of hard-earned wisdom, solid information, tips, and suggestions on what you can do for your partner. There’s also lots of humor packaged in digestible, bite-size pieces. (The book is essentially one long numbered list of things expectant fathers may do, think, and feel, divided into trimesters.) Wise and witty bonus lists enhance this smart collection, including 10 Great Moments of Pregnancy and Early Fatherhood, 10 Questions Pregnant Women Will Ask and the Answers They Want to Hear, and 10 Thoughts You’ll Have at Least Once a Day.
Standout feature: Candid though sometimes exaggerated discussions of sex during pregnancy. We also loved The 12 Last Hurrahs for You and Your Wife.
What could be better: The title of the book!
Dude, You’re Gonna Be a Dad! How to Get (Both of You) Through the Next 9 Months
By John Pfeiffer
Written by a witty father of three, this book begins with some been-there information on trying to get pregnant, including the persistence and possible attitude adjustment it takes to finally make it happen. Pfeiffer has plenty of tips for guys on how to support their spouses and be actively involved in the countless decisions new parents face, written in a breezy, humorous style.
Standout feature: Short reviews of helpful websites.
What could be better: Like a lot of books for dads, this one gives a pretty stereotypical view of the man as sex-obsessed and kind of clueless. It would be nice to see a book give guys a little more credit than that.
What to Expect When Your Wife Is Expanding: A Reassuring Month-by-Month Guide for the Father-to-Be, Whether He Wants Advice or Not
By Thomas Hill
This parody of everybody’s favorite pregnancy manual is laugh-out-loud funny. Each month-by-month chapter begins with a list of “What Your Wife Will Be Complaining About” and includes a priceless section entitled “A couple of things to say to let her know you’re caring, sensitive, and up on the required reading.” This slim volume is a great antidote to the saccharine earnestness and concern of most pregnancy books—and you’ll both find it funny. Plus, as with all the best humor, there’s more than a little truth here.
Standout feature: A crib sheet of what to say—and not to say—during each stage of labor.
What could be better: Though the book is clearly the labor of an involved, witty, and real father, there’s still room for the occasional mushy passing thought.
150 Tips and Tricks for New Dads: From the First Feeding to Diaper-Changing Disasters—Everything You Need to Know to Be a Great Father
by Vincent Iannelli
The author is a pediatrician with a lot of hefty credentials, so you can expect to find reliable tips on all aspects of feeding and caring for your baby. But he’s also a dad, and he writes with compassion about what that means and how to define your own role as father. This isn’t one of those joke-filled books you’ll read once and forget. It has plenty of guidance and wisdom you’ll return to again and again as your baby grows.
Standout feature: Easy to find what you’re looking for, and easy to read and understand.
What could be better: At 208 pages, it’s a little too short to cover “everything you need to know to be a great father.”
Also check out:
- The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year by Armin Brott
- Fathers and Babies by Jean Marzollo
- Finding Time For Fatherhood by Bruce Linton, Ph.D.