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Each year, the summit attracts public and private sector professionals seeking research-based best practices and innovations to, in the words of Cynthia Osborne, Director of the CFRP, “learn, share, improve services and support fathers and families.” Dorothy J. Mandell, Ph.D., Assistant Public Health Professor for the University of Texas System, also took part in the discussion. Here are our five takeaways.
1.The perinatal period matters. Perinatal refers to the prenatal period, the time of birth and just thereafter. “This is an important time for child development and bonding, Osborne stated. “When fathers are unengaged, that is a signal of risk. Fathers are needed from the start.” Research shows an increased risk of negative outcomes for children and mothers when fathers are not present during the perinatal period.
2.Babies need legal fathers. Osborne’s studies pertain to the small percentage of kids where there is no paternity established. There are about one thousand babies born in Texas every day. For about half of those births, the parents are not legally married, meaning the biological father is not the legal father unless he establishes legal paternity.
About 75% of these unmarried fathers will establish paternity in the hospital at their child’s birth, which allows them to put their name of their child’s birth certificate and enjoy all of the rights and responsibilities of being a father. About 25% of the unmarried fathers will not attend their child’s birth, and “that ends up being about 125 kids a day with no legal father who is not involved in the child’s life early on. That is a signal that support is needed,” asserts Osborne. “We see a negative impact on health outcomes for children and an increase in complication with the pregnancy.”
3. Risk factors do not exist in isolation. Dorothy Mandell’s presentation showed that an absentee father at this critical time often overlaps with other high-risk factors such as infant mortality rate (IMR) and disconnection from prenatal care. When paternity is established, IMR is about 5 per one thousand births. When paternity is not established, IMR increases to about 8.5.
The same trend is seen with other risk factors. For instance, mothers with an established paternal partner are over three times more likely to access prenatal care than those without. In this case, paternity serves as a protective role and encourages healthy habits, like wellness checks during pregnancy.
Mandell illustrated how “when paternity is established, the good things are better,” and discussed how we get to make the good things better. To start, she and her colleagues have developed the Father’s Playbook, an app specifically for guys in response to the lack of information for men whose partners are expecting a baby.
4. Harness the power of inclusion. It is important to note that the research does not point to a causal relationship between the father not being there at birth and these negative risk factors. Osborne hones this point, saying, “The birth absence is an indication of bigger problems, and those problems inform the results.”
There are various reasons a dad wouldn’t be in the picture, and sometimes those circumstances are out of parents’ control. Mandell and Osborne suggest the following interventions to provide the support needed, as legal rights allow dads to make decisions regarding the child, access medical records and generally promote well-being.
Provide resources to address unplanned pregnancies, such as birth plans and contraception
Educate and empower providers to welcome and include fathers at appointments
Provide tools and resources to help the dad with the fatherhood journey
5. More research is warranted. We know that pregnancy affects men biologically, socially and emotionally, and that they want to be involved. The fact is that men feel underprepared when the baby is born, and they struggle with postnatal depression and anxiety too.
The research Osborne and Mandell shared was enlightening, but there are still a lot of gaps in the picture. “The first thing I would do is measure more,” Mandell admits. “We measure what we value and fathers are valued in this journey.”
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.