Helping Dads Support Their Kids’ Health and Development

Jun 13, 2019, 1:00 PM, Posted by

Research shows that children and moms benefit when dads are actively engaged in their kids’ health and development. A new study examines barriers that make it difficult for some fathers to be involved and how to overcome them.

Dad holding his smiling daughter.

This Sunday, families around the country will celebrate Father’s Day and pay tribute to the special caregivers in their lives. It’s a time when I find myself feeling especially grateful for all the positive ways my own father has influenced my life and the crucial role my husband plays in raising our daughters.

I also think about the many dads I have been lucky enough to meet throughout my life. These are the special dads who are determined to make sure that all kids--both their own and others--have every opportunity to grow up healthy and happy.

One such father who stands out for me is Steve Spencer. I learned of Steve a couple of years ago when he represented his home state of Oregon at Zero to Three’s Strolling Thunder event. The event brings together parents from across the country to meet their Members of Congress and share what babies and families need to thrive. As a single dad raising two boys, Steve is a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for the kind of supportive services parents rely on to give their kids the healthiest start.

Steve put it best when he outlined the day-to-day realities of parenting, "It's really hard to put focus in trying to figure out a way to keep the apartment and get food in these kids' bellies and so on and so forth on top of taking care of him [his four-month-old son] and not sleeping."

Despite the constant juggling that comes with parenting, Steve is just one of many fathers who takes an active role in in his children’s health and development. And, according to a recent study in the journal Obesity, if the barriers that make participation difficult were removed, more fathers (and likely more mothers and caregivers in general!) could attend the many appointments and meetings that are essential to raising healthy kids. These include prenatal and pediatric care appointments, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) visits, home visits for pregnant women and families with young children, and Early Head Start activities, all of which help form the “circle of care” of a young child’s first few years.

The study, Engaging Fathers in Early Obesity Prevention During the First 1,000 Days: Policy, Systems, and Environmental Change Strategies funded by RWJF’s national nutrition research program, Healthy Eating Research (HER), looked at ways to engage more fathers in programs and practices that could help prevent childhood obesity during a child’s earliest years. The study highlighted emerging evidence about the “unique role” fathers play in childhood obesity prevention.

One of the pieces of research it references to support this found that “increases in fathers’ participation in physical child care (e.g., giving the kids a bath and getting them dressed) and the frequency of taking children outside to walk/play (which dads tend to do more of than bathing/dressing activities) were associated with decreases in the odds of childhood obesity from age 2 to age 4.”

And, the benefits extend beyond physical health. According to a study highlighted by the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality, “when fathers are more engaged with their children, their children have better developmental outcomes ... including fewer behavioral problems and improved cognitive and mental health outcomes.”

Most families divvy up routine child-care tasks like bathing, dressing and playing, among multiple caregivers in the way that works best for them. But it’s harder to do this with the programs and appointments examined in the HER-funded study, all of which specifically integrate obesity prevention services. This is because providers manage factors such as patient access and scheduling, so parents have less control.

We know that the earlier dads are involved, the better it is for moms and babies. But we lack robust evidence and a good understanding of participation rates and levels of engagement in the programs that serve kids and families during those first few years of childhood. As the study outlines, we are more informed about barriers to involvement and potential ways to address them. Some of these barriers include:

  • Inability to schedule appointments outside of regular (9-5) working hours and long wait times in clinics. Evening and weekend availability would help all dads and moms accompany their babies to appointments whether they’re at the local WIC office or with their pediatrician.
  • Lack of materials and information with images and messages that resonate with dads. Health care provider offices, WIC clinics, and home visiting and early Head Start programs are great resources to gather information about how to care for babies. But, handouts and booklets are dominated by pictures of moms and portray mom-centric activities such as breastfeeding. This can inadvertently leave dads feeling that their participation is not important, which is clearly not the case. Developing materials that are better tailored to fathers by sharing guidance on their specific roles could help create more inclusive experiences.
  • Programs like home visiting and Early Head Start have few male providers on staff who might be more comfortable/effective working with and engaging dads. More broadly, many program and clinic staff do not have much experience or formal training on how to effectively engage fathers. Hiring more male staff and implementing a robust program-wide “father-engagement training curriculum” may improve interactions with dads during appointments.  

And, the most significant challenge, which creates and/or contributes to the smaller-scale barriers listed above is the “lack of long-term, stable funding specifically earmarked for father-engagement activities.” Funding specifically designated to engage fathers would certainly make “father-focused programming, hiring of male providers, and the ability to offer extended-hour appointments” more feasible.

In the spirit of the holiday, let’s acknowledge the many wonderful ways dads show up for their kids. Then, when Sunday comes to a close, let’s commit together to continue addressing the challenges that so many dads (and moms!) face when it comes to giving their kids the best start from their very first days.

What other steps can support fathers in playing a more active role in their children’s health? Share your ideas in the comments below!

 

About the author

Jamie Bussell

Jamie Bussel, MPH, a senior program officer who joined RWJF in 2002, is an inspiring, hands-on leader with extensive experience in developing programs and policies that promote the health of children and families. Read her bio.