7 Tips for New (and Not-So-New) Dads About Kids’ Health

Just a few months ago, my brother welcomed his newborn son to the world. Imagine the differences between his experience and the experience my own father had when we were born. Case in point: When my mom was delivering me in the hospital, my dad had no idea how to help during labor. Flustered and worried, he took the ice chips intended for my mom and used them to cool his brow. And while maternity leave was short, paternity leave was unheard of.

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How times have changed. Dads today are intimately involved in the birthing process. Even as early as pre-conception, researchers believe that a father’s mental health can directly affect the health of the mother – and, in turn, the baby. Yes, dads matter – more than we might know.

Knowing how to keep your kids healthy is part of being the best dad you can be. What you need to know shouldn’t look too different from your partner’s list. Learning the nuts and bolts of infant care and recognizing when a partner needs help are good places to start.

Here are 7 tips to help you be a great new dad:

Talk with your partner before the birth to help in shared decisions.

This can range from naming the baby to medical decisions, such as finding a doctor for the new baby or deciding whether to circumcise a son. Discuss these issues before your baby is born to help ease stress. This way, you and your partner can focus on labor and recovery, and getting to know your newborn child. If your partner decides to breastfeed, you still can be part of the feeding process by supporting her. Nursing mothers need to drink lots of water, so bring mom a glass of water when she’s breastfeeding, as well as a supportive pillow. At nighttime you can help with diaper changes and bringing the baby to mom for feeds. Talk with your partner before the birth about how you can help and support her. Breastfeeding definitely can affect intimacy between partners, so it’s wise to plan for and discuss that even before baby arrives. Think about ways you can spend time as a couple after the baby arrives.

Get your own health in gear.

The farther along a dad gets in his parenting, the more he realizes how much his own health behaviors will affect the health of a child. If parents don’t get outside and active, it’s hard to expect the same of children. Similarly, making healthy choices at home and when dining out will help you set eating patterns for your kids to live by. And finally, make sure you follow up with your own well care with your health care provider. Make sure your vaccines are up to date (especially your Tdap and flu vaccines) and encourage the same of close family members who will be near the baby. Your newborn baby is depending on the immunity of caregivers to avoid many diseases. And if you smoke, talk to your health care provider about quitting: your lungs and your kids will thank you.

Learn the basics.

Getting practice with the basics of infant care never hurt a parent – spend time with a friend and his baby to see how to get involved with daily activities like changing diapers. Learn how to use a rectal thermometer for your baby. Learn how to give saline nose drops for when baby’s nose is stuffy. Be an active participant when it comes time to give medicines. You don’t want to be alone with your kids and not know how to give the care they need.

Take ownership.

Most parents have limited time off, which means that dads and moms share in the responsibility when their children are ill or going for well-child visits. Offer to take your child to his or her next well visit. Take note of the kinds of issues that the doctor brings up with you – how is your child growing or developing? What are your child’s basic habits, likes, dislikes? Do you or your child’s other caregiver have specific questions or concerns? Moms have just as much trouble as dads do remembering how many wet diapers their baby had the previous day. Dads are probably just a bit more honest about admitting they don’t know! So if you don’t know the answer to a particular question, take a deep breath, and be up front and honest with the doctor. Relay all your questions and concerns. And you won’t be alone in this. More than 75% of dads speak with their child’s doctor in a given year.

Get “in the know” about your child’s health.

Tons of online resources are available to learn about how kids typically grow and develop; pay attention to your child and see how well he or she is meeting these milestones. Read up on the immunizations due at your child’s next well visit, and be ready along with your partner to help comfort your child during shots. Know your children’s medicines and allergies, and where they get their medicines so that you can refill if needed. Know the doctor’s number and how to reach him or her in an emergency.

Identify your strengths early.

The easiest way to both help mom and bond with your newborn is to identify how you can participate. A colicky child will benefit from being in dad’s arms for gentle calming and shushing. Help with bedtime routines, reading, singing, and wherever you’d like to have a role. In our household, my husband relishes his ability to bring my kids to laughter that verges on mania. Embrace the silly, the funny, the magic tricks, the rough-housing, and dive into it head first. Put down your smartphone (except when you’re trying to capture those moments) and get moving with your kids. Nothing gets kids active in a household like rough-housing with dad!

Don’t underestimate your knowledge of your children.

As a pediatrician I notice more and more dads who know their children well and who are sensitive to their needs. This is a heartening prospect. I love seeing dads who are caring, confident, and nurturing just like moms – but who also can offer their own contributions. You play an essential role in your child’s future, but this does not have to be an overwhelming prospect. Regardless of the relationship you had (or didn’t have) with your own father, taking that first step toward your own style of parenting is empowering. Also think about the people in your life who have led you and inspired you, and let them help guide you toward being one great dad!

Rupal Christine Gupta, MD, FAAP

View posts by Rupal Christine Gupta, MD, FAAP
Rupal Christine Gupta, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician and a medical editor with KidsHealth.org. Follow KidsHealth on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. When she is not at her desk or with patients, she enjoys the rollicking adventure of early parenthood with her husband and two young children and tweets personally from @Doc2Mom.
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