Dad, talk to your baby!
I’ve written before about how good fathering is good for men’s health and vice versa – healthy men make great dads who are present mentally as well as physically. Such positive paternal presence also tends to help families thrive, mums included . So when a baby arrives, it makes sense to support every effort Dad makes to get to know his new little person.
I’m now going to address this to dads, but it could help any men in the life of a baby, be they dads, stepdads, grandads, uncles or other friends and family. In fact anyone who wants to help a baby communicate and connect could use the tips below. I’ve developed them in my clinical work with parents and babies, based on my training and experience, both at work and at home as a dad myself!
Dads talking to babies – FAQ
Why? Because long before they get the lyrics, babies get melody. They are wired to respond to your voice, and I think they’re wired to know the tune of a good story, so tell them one.
When? Pretty much anytime they can hear you, starting if you can with womb-time. Too busy? Talk about what you’re doing. Too tired? Tell your baby why you’re tired. Too stressed? Tell your baby how you are feeling, and why. Keep it G-rated (no naughty words), but keep it real; your baby and you both are likely to relax if you can put into words what is going on, especially if you can bring it back to them as the reason for it all. “It’s all about you, Baby.”
How? With your normal voice, but bevel off the edges. You may naturally find a bit of extra melody in there, but if imitating someone else’s baby talk isn’t doing it for you two, work out your own style by watching your baby’s face. It’ll be a bit like tuning an old transistor radio – you’ll know when the signal is at its best, by the way your baby’s face and body and voice respond.
What? Almost anything G-rated, but best if it’s a story. There is something very special about human storytelling that has given us something to talk about for as long as there’s been an us. Stories make sense of our lives, hand on all we learned the hard way, and connect people. I think babies know when they’re hearing an important adult telling a good story; the melody settles their bodies. It’s like evolution telling them: you’re part of this. An adult has you in mind. You won’t be forgotten or left behind.
Tell me a story, Dad!
If it can be your story, what in my family we call a Dad’s Head Story, that’s best, because your brain and body will probably settle too, as you make sense of your life, even in the smallest ways in the here and now.
You could tell your baby about right now as part of the day you’re having:
“Well, baby, it’s late in the day and I’m tired, but you need a bath. At work today they implied I’m not as committed as everyone else because of you. Just because I’ve got two really tricky jobs now. But I think we both know which one matters more, don’t we? They can get another worker, but you can’t get another dad, can you?”
You could tell your baby something about the world:
“So this is a tap. We get the water temperature just right for you with this bit that sticks out. Yes, it’s shiny. The water comes out of the tap just when we ask it to, isn’t that amazing? It comes from the sky as rain, which lands in the hills and goes into reservoirs and into pipes just so it can make you clean”
Or something playful or silly:
“This is Mr Facewasher. Or Ms. Facewasher, I forget. When she grows up, she wants to be a towel. All the other towels in the linen cupboard call her Shorty. I keep telling her she’s fine as she is, but these facewashers, they’re ambitious, something about all that keeping faces clean rubs off on them and they get all ‘I gotta have a dream!’ But never mind that. Right now she’s the perfect size for you.”
Sometimes, the simpler the better:
“This is water. It’s wet. It’s sloppy, and slippy, but it gets you clean, and clean babies feel better. Out you pop, all clean now, onto the towel. Oh, you didn’t want to get out, did you? It’s cold, I know, but I’ll warm you up. Oh, yes, complaint heard, loud and clear. Let’s get you dressed, clean baby, annoyed baby who wanted to stay in the bath!”
Describing what you are doing is maybe the easiest way to talk to a baby. If you’re in the right headspace, describing how you feel can be great too:
“Well, baby, I am so tired right now. I’m pretty frustrated too, for a whole bunch of reasons you won’t understand until you’re older. I’m also worried about lots of stuff too. It’s not easy, feeling like this, but it always passes, and because I’ll do anything for you, I’ll put up with feeling a bit rubbish right now.”
Or you can describe how you think your baby feels:
“You looked really happy a moment ago, but now you look a bit uncomfortable. Are you as tired as me? Still cross about the bath? Oh! Did you get a fright when the phone went off? Oh, you poor thing, come here, I’ll protect you from the phone. Stupid smartphone. Hear that? It’s going to MessageBank. Because you’re cranky and freaked out, and I’m busy helping you with that. Whoever it is can leave a message!”
I’ve made each example of these Dad’s Head Stories fit around common events at the end of a baby’s day. Of course it’s often messier than that, things don’t fit, or you can find it hard to think about what to say in the heat of a moment. Like anything, practice helps – with repetition you’ll likely find your schtick, and your baby will get used to it, finding it reassuring as well as interesting.
Reading is good too!
Use other people’s stories to give both your brains an enjoyable break. You can start reading to your kid in the womb, and pretty much any time after that too. Find kids’ books you like – libraries and their websites have great selections – and away you go. There’s great evidence that reading to your baby every day is good for them, you, and your relationship.
Speaking of relationships, a dad who tells stories or reads to his baby is likely to be highly appreciated by the baby’s mum. So it’s win-win, really.
And if you’re really stuck, you can read your baby this article. It might put them to sleep, but I’m guessing that’d be ok too…
My thanks to colleagues and friends who have helped shape this article.
Some useful websites:
© Dr Matthew Roberts and My Doctor’s Handwriting, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dr Matthew Roberts and My Doctor’s Handwriting with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.