Dear Mr. Dad: 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 that 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?
A: Yep, you’re missing something, and it’s a biggie. Your involvement during and after the pregnancy affects not only your baby, but also your girlfriend and yourself—and this is especially true because you’re not married. Before we get into the during-the-pregnancy part, let’s talk about what happens after the baby is born.
For your girlfriend: 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. Your 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 well-being. 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 They may become fussy, withdrawn, and sluggish.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, they’re 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, do stupid things that could land them in jail, or become teen parents.
For you: Dads who are actively involved with their children are generally happier than absent of uninvolved dads. They take better physical care of themselves (quitting smoking, reducing risky behavior, etc.), and they do better in their careers.
Now, on to 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.
For your girlfriend: If you’re not involved—for example, by not going to medical appointments with her—she’ll be less likely to go herself. Inadequate prenatal care is associated with premature birth and low birthweight. 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 and increases the chance that she’ll breastfeed the baby.
For the baby: Maternal smoking is associated with premature birth and low birthweight. Babies born that way are more likely to develop physical and cognitive problems that can last a lifetime. Worse yet, infant mortality rates are higher among women who don’t get adequate prenatal care. 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.
For you: Getting involved during the pregnancy makes it more likely that you’ll stay involved after the birth. 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 it.