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July 9, 2019

Involving Fathers Before Birth Leads to Better Outcomes for Babies

It’s mothers, not fathers, who get pregnant. So, does it matter if fathers act as if they are pregnant, too?

“Of course the primary patient is mom, but our idea is psychosocially, babies are born to their fathers and families, too,” said Dr. Raymond Levy, founding director of the Fatherhood Project and assistant clinical professor of psychology at the Harvard Medical School.

More than 22,000 U.S. infants died in 2017. Leading causes included preterm birth, low birth weight, and maternal pregnancy complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rates are among the highest in the economically developed world.

Many cases are preventable.

Honing in on fathers to address these rates may seem an unlikely strategy, but research shows they can indirectly improve fetal development, birth weight and preterm birth, likely because of their impact on maternal well-being during pregnancy. When fathers or partners are involved and supportive of the mother during pregnancy, they tend to obtain prenatal care earlier; smoke, drink alcohol, and use illicit drugs less; and eat healthier.

Levy stressed that there are single women who can and do have successful and healthy pregnancies and deliveries, but “the general finding is that it’s easier when both are involved,” he said.

In his research, Levy surveyed almost 1,000 expectant fathers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Chelsea and Revere Health Centers to do something few doctors have: check in with dads, and apply their findings to see if obstetrics could be redesigned to include them more, since “historically, obstetrics services haven’t been very friendly to fathers,” he said.

The 50-question survey asked about their mental and physical health, how they felt at this critical time of their lives, how they were treated by obstetrics staff, if they wanted more information about parenting, and how they wanted to receive that information.

Culturally and economically varied, almost all — 98% of the men — reported being excited to become fathers, and 93% believed their involvement in obstetrics care was important. Nearly all felt their health was important to a newborn baby.

However, the survey also revealed that many had unhealthy behaviors: 10% smoked, almost a quarter didn’t have a primary-care physician, and 70% were overweight. Almost half reported experiencing anxiety.

Levy leveraged the findings and now heads a monthly meeting with staff to discuss possible interventions and programs that could further support fatherhood.

In the obstetrics department, there are now images of fathers nurturing infants, and scheduling staff members let moms know that fathers and partners are also welcome at appointments.

Levy is also developing educational materials that will be delivered by text for fathers who sign up, and he plans to share his work nationwide.

“We’d like to have a fourth prenatal care session called the ‘Family Visit’ where fathers are invited and have a dedicated person available to talk to them about their concerns and refer them if needed,” he said.

The survey findings will be published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal before the end of the year.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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