Talking dads

A Better Start
Merle Davies

Recently, hundreds of practitioners arrived in Blackpool to attend our national conference: ‘Talking Dads’.

The event focussed on the important role that dads play in child development and the impact of mental health issues in fatherhood. The conference also gave us the opportunity to showcase the innovative engagement work that we are currently offering to our dads in Blackpool.

The conference presented a video featuring some of the dads we’ve worked with, talking about the significant impact of this work.

Steve, a local dad who attends FRED (Father’s Reading Every Day) and the ‘Dad’s Shed’ community project, said:

“I’ve given up work to look after my two children. I was very isolated and alone and I didn’t have anyone I could just pop round and speak to. I have been coming to Blackpool Better Start for four weeks now, maybe five, and I’ve found it really useful and it’s given me the chance to build relationships and a support network with people in a similar situation to myself. We have good banter too, and it’s nice to be with a group of men and have a good laugh. It’s something that I’ve massively missed and I’ve found it a real benefit.”

David attends a targeted service called ‘Mellow Dads’. He said:

“I’m a single dad of three kids. I had to go through court to try and get custody as my children were in foster care for 10 months. It’s really important for children to have a father figure in their life, and if it weren’t for A Better Start I wouldn’t be able to progress as a father probably. It’s encouraged me to learn more and parent better and helped me to understand my children better.”

Building on these inspiring accounts, we were delighted to welcome Professor Paul Ramchandani from Cambridge University who chaired the day, and presented his fascinating research on the link between depression and the way that fathers play with their children.

Depression is common among dads and affects between 5 and 10 per cent of all men who have a new baby. Analysis has shown that depression increases the risk of negative effects on the developmental outcomes of the child by 20%.

Depression can be associated with more withdrawn paternal behaviour and can lead to less spontaneous play, which again can have an impact on cognitive development. Play is incredibly important to a child’s development and it should be fun, spontaneous and provide challenge - all of which can be very difficult if a dad is experiencing poor mental health. A systematic review of the involvement of fathers in play found that father-infant play is consistently associated with a higher rate of positive child outcomes including emotional, behavioural and cognitive development, so it’s critical that dads with depression receive the support they need, when they need it.

Mark Williams, a campaigner for fathers’ mental health, shared his own experiences of male post-natal depression to raise awareness of the condition and encourage more dads to talk about their mental health.

Fathers with perinatal mental health disorders are 47 times more likely to be considered at risk of suicide, yet men are still not screened for antenatal depression. Mark launched International Fathers Mental Health Day and developed Fathers Reaching Out to encourage dads to open up, and while help for anxious and depressed fathers is part of the new NHS 10-year plan, more funding is needed and awareness of the issue still needs to be raised.

Dr Anna Machin from the University of Oxford brought an anthropological angle to the conference with her talk on Becoming a Dad: The Science of Fatherhood.

Dads are biologically and psychologically primed to take on the role of parent and levels of testosterone decrease when men become new fathers, to make dads more family-focussed.

Anna showed the many biological changes that take place in the structure of fathers’ brains that can affect nurturing, risk detection, problem solving, planning and relationships. These changes can help the father to make deep bonds with their children.

Dads can also have a significant impact on the development of language and executive functions within children, and at the preschool age fathers can have a greater impact on this than mums – which shows that dads universally have a role in scaffolding their child’s entry into the world beyond the family.

Interestingly, it is not just biological fathers that experience these changes, the impact on a child’s development and the changes in the dad’s brain chemistry also occur within non-biological fathers who have ‘stepped up’ to do the job.

The conference also welcomed Sharin Baldwin, The Fatherhood Institute, Fathers Network Scotland, VIG and For Baby’s Sake, who all contributed to an important day highlighting the issues that fathers of today face, and what services and solutions are available to support them in their journey of fatherhood.

Merle Davies is Director of Blackpool Better Start.

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication. The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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