In updated clinical report on fathers, AAP urges pediatricians to reach fathers early
Fathers are involved in their children's lives more than ever, and mounting evidence shows that the way they speak and interact with kids reaps huge health rewards that can be unique and complementary to the mother's role.
Yet dads still face cultural and workplace barriers that rely on old stereotypes, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), issuing its first clinical report on fatherhood since 2004.
The report, "Fathers' Role in the Care and Development of Their Children: The Role of Pediatricians," encourages pediatricians to initiate conversations with men and encourage their involvement, starting at birth. The review of research examines groups of fathers that reflect a more diverse population than in the past, including military families with a deployed parent, formerly incarcerated fathers, fathers from minority groups, and same-sex couples.
The report, based on a surge of new studies over the past decade, will be published in the July 2016 Pediatrics (published online June 13).
"Fathers really have a quite impressive impact on their children's health, including how well they do in school, how well they get along with friends, and whether children run into problems like substance abuse or delinquency," said Dr. Michael Yogman, chair of the AAP Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health and co-author of the report. "Pediatricians can encourage fathers to get involved; one way is to write a prescription for dad with doctor's orders: 'Play with your baby every day,'" he said.
The research paints a nuanced portrait of fatherhood and covers a period of rapid societal change, including the 2008 recession that led to more men staying at home with their children. In 2014, about 2 million -- or 17 percent of all single parents – were men. Fathers represented 3.4 percent of all stay-at-home parents, and 32 percent of these men were married to women working full time in 2012. According to 2014 Census data, there are 378,000 gay male couples in the U.S.; approximately 10 percent are raising children.
AAP defines "father" broadly as the male or males identified as most involved in caring for the child, regardless of living situation or biological relation. In some families, this role is filled by a grandfather, adoptive father, non-resident father or other male who is committed to the child's well-being.
According to the AAP, fathers influence their children's health in specific ways, including:
A father's play tends to be more stimulating and vigorous. The dads' so-called rough-and-tumble interactions may challenge children to explore and take safe risks, while less-intensive interactions with mothers provide safety and balance.
Fathers are more likely to introduce new words when they talk with an infant or young child, which can speed language development. A father and child's communication at age 3 can predict the child's later language development.
Adolescents with involved fathers are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior and are less likely to suffer from depression. Girls with involved fathers from an early age have a decreased risk of early puberty, decreased early sexual experiences and pregnancy.
Very few U.S. states and companies have started to offer paid family leave policies that allow fathers to take time off with their children, but cultural and structural biases remain barriers to supporting fathers' involvement.
"Despite the pressures at work and from society, encouraging fathers to become involved early on with their children can make a big difference in their comfort level and confidence in caring for their children as they grow," said Dr. Craig Garfield, the report's co-author.
The AAP supports paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers.
"Institutional barriers can really be inhibiting," Dr. Yogman said. "Most industrialized countries are far ahead of the United States."
The AAP recommends that pediatricians should communicate with fathers about their children's health and wellbeing, rather than limiting such conversations to the mothers. Pediatricians may emphasize the unique role fathers play in their child's development, and recognize that fathers also are subject to postpartum depression and should be screened as necessary.
"Fathers today are more involved with their children than ever before, and they want to know from the pediatrician how their child is developing," Dr. Garfield said. "They want to be included and made welcome in the doctor's office. Especially with more women entering the workforce, more fathers are stepping in to provide care and they want to know from the doctor what is best for their children."
Join the conversation on Twitter: Use #DadsAre
From now until Father's Day on June 19th, the AAP is encouraging fathers to share their stories, photos and experiences about fatherhood on Twitter by using #DadsAre. On Friday, June 17, the AAP will be hosting a celebration of dads using the same hashtag. Follow HealthyChildren.org to join the conversation: https://twitter.com/healthychildren.