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Father kissing his smiling baby daughter

A study published in BMJ Open by a team at the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit in the Nuffield Department of Population Health explored the relationship between a father’s involvement in a child's upbringing at eight weeks and eight months old and the child’s behaviour at age nine and eleven.

The findings suggest that how new fathers see themselves as parents, how they value their role as a parent and how they adjust to this new role, rather than the amount of direct involvement in childcare during infancy, appears to be associated with positive behaviour in pre-teen children.

The study used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children which followed the health and development of thousands of children born in the south west of England in the early 1990s. 

Parents were asked to complete questionnaires when their child was aged eight weeks, eight months, nine years and eleven years old. Mothers were asked to complete the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) which included questions about their child’s attitudes towards other children, whether they were willing to share toys and their confidence in unfamiliar situations at ages nine and eleven. Information was also gathered about parents’ mental health and socioeconomic status.

The team identified three areas of paternal involvement: a father's emotional response to the child, the frequency of his involvement in housework and childcare activities, and his feelings of security in his role as a parent and partner. Fathers were asked to rate their level of agreement with statements about their relationship with their child, direct childcare and associated household tasks, their attitudes to parenting and their moods and feelings eight weeks and eight months after their child was born.

The results for more than 6,300 children, who lived with both parents at least until eight months old, showed that children whose fathers had a sense of security in their role as a parent, and who were more positive about the role, were less likely to show behavioural difficulties by the ages of nine and eleven. By contrast, the degree to which a father engaged with tasks such as such as shopping, cleaning, cooking and childcare activities was not associated with later behavioural problems.

The researchers noted that the findings were based on self-report, which may be subject to bias and that as the study was based on children born 25 years ago there may be a limit to how the findings can be generalised to the present day.