Q: My girlfriend and I just found out that she’s pregnant. She wants me to go to all the doctor visits with her, but I don’t see the point. I know it’s important for me to be involved after the baby is born, and I intend to be – but aside from supporting my girlfriend, I don’t get how I can actually be involved during the pregnancy or what difference it could make to the baby. Am I missing something here?
Answer: Yep, you’re missing something, and it’s a biggie. Your involvement during and after the pregnancy affects not only your baby, but the two of you!
Before we get into the during-the-pregnancy part, though, let’s talk about what happens after the baby is born.
For your partner: A number of studies have shown that first-time single mothers are far more likely than married mothers to experience stress and suffer from depression.
You’re being there for her, emotionally supporting her, and taking on some of the childcare responsibilities reduces her stress levels and gives her a greater sense of wellbeing. It also improves mother-baby attachment and generally makes her a better parent.
For the baby: When mothers are depressed, babies get depressed, too. They may become fussy, withdrawn and sluggish. As they get older, if the mum’s depression is left untreated, they child is more likely to develop emotional and psychological problems. So when you help the mother, you’re also indirectly helping your baby.
Your direct involvement with your baby has some major effects, too: children with actively involved dads have better problem-solving skills, are more social, do better on IQ tests and in school, and are less likely when they get older to abuse drugs or alcohol, or do stupid things that could land them in jail or become accidental teen parents.
For you: Dads who are actively involved with their children are generally happier than absent or uninvolved dads. They take better physical care of themselves (quitting smoking, reducing risky behaviour, etc), and they do better in their careers.
But now, onto the pregnancy part. My research, and that of a number of academics and clinicians, has found that the earlier dads get involved, the more they’ll be involved – and there’s no time earlier than pregnancy. Let’s take a look at what that means.
If you’re not involved – for example, not going to medical appointments with her – she’ll be less likely to go herself. At the risk of freaking you out, infant mortality rates are higher among women who don’t get adequate prenatal care. Inadequate prenatal care is also associated with premature birth and low birth weight.
When you’re involved and supportive, you’re demonstrating your commitment to her and the baby. That reduces her stress levels, along with her risk of developing pregnancy complications that could threaten her or the baby’s health or life.
Your involvement also reduces the chance that she’ll smoke during the pregnancy, according to research, and increases the chance that she’ll breastfeed the baby. Breastfed babies have fewer allergies, better immune systems and are less likely to develop ear infections or pneumonia. Some studies even show that breastfed babies have higher IQs.
And getting involved now, during the pregnancy, makes it more likely that you’ll stay involved after the birth.
And remember: in the thousands of interviews I’ve done with dads, I’ve come across many who started off less-than-excited about becoming a dad – but none who regretted their involvement.