Dads and Pregnancy–Fatherhood Starts before Your Baby is Born

expectant dad listening to belly

expectant dad listening to bellyDear 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 They may become fussy, withdrawn, and sluggish.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.

Expecting Anxiety

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m 34 and my wife is just a few weeks away from giving birth to our first baby. I’m excited about becoming a dad, but my anxiety levels over the past week have been through the roof and sometimes I feel like I’m having a heart attack. On top of my shortness of breath and dizziness, I’m also breaking out in hives. I’ve seen my doctor about this, but he has yet to solve my problem. My wife has been very supportive, but I hate feeling so helpless when she’s the one who has to give birth. What can I do to be normal again?

A: Good news: as unpleasant and frightening as your symptoms are, what you’re going through is actually perfectly normal. There’s no question that your wife’s physical experience of pregnancy is a lot more intense than yours. But psychologically, the two of you are going through pretty much the same thing. I sometimes think that the above-the-neck part of the pregnancy might even be more profound for men than it is for women. Women have far stronger social networks than men do and they’ve got mothers, sisters, aunts, and female friends to talk with about their fears, worries, and concerns. Men tend not to want to admit to anyone else (sometimes even ourselves, and especially not our spouse) that we’re scared half to death of the way our life is going to be turned upside down and inside out.

Those fears—and the accompanying anxiety—make perfect sense. If you’re like most first-time expectant dads, you have no idea how your life is going to change. Sure, everyone you know has probably told you that “life’s never going to be the same.” True, but have you ever wondered what that means? One of my favorite quotes came from a woman who was asked to describe the way everyone told her that parenthood was going to be like and the way it actually turned out to be. “It’s like the difference between watching a tornado on TV,” she said, “and having one tear the roof off your house.” She’s right, and there’s nothing you can do to prepare 100% for your little tornado.
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Sex During Pregnancy

Q: Help! I’m an expectant father and something’s happening to my libido. I used to be one of those guys who loved to have sex anytime. But now that my wife is pregnant, I’ve completely lost interest. What’s wrong with me?

For some men, sex during pregnancy is an incredible turn-on. But for others, it borders on the revolting. Where you stand on the issue depends on a lot of factors, but one thing is pretty much guaranteed: When your partner is pregnant, your sex life will change.
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Pregnancy: Is There Sex After Sex?

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m an expectant father and my sex life has completely disappeared. We’re not very far into the pregnancy but my wife seems to have lost all interest (admittedly, her throwing up a few times a day probably has something to do with that). Are we EVER going to have sex again?

A: My money’s on Yes. But you’ll have to be patient. In the first trimester, many couples experience a drop-off in their sex life. Sometimes it’s because of the mom-to-be’s nausea. Other times it’s because she’s worried that you won’t be attracted to her changing body or that having sex will hurt the baby or cause a miscarriage (that’s extremely unlikely). In some cases (though not yours) the guy truly isn’t attracted to his partner anymore or thinks that she isn’t feeling attractive and wouldn’t be interested in sex anyway. And in some cases, the whole idea that you’re about to become parents sinks in, and one or both of you starts thinking about your own parents, in bed, naked…. That can be a real mood killer.
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Pregnancy Dreams Up in Smoke

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are just about ready to start a family and we’re really excited. The problem is that we disagree about what she (and I) need to do to get ourselves physically ready. Two things in particular are causing some friction: I read an article that suggested that women start taking prenatal vitamins even before they get pregnant. My wife says prenatal vitamins are for pregnancy only. She and I both smoke. I say she should quit, she says she’ll just switch to e-cigs. What do you think?

A: I think you’re right to be worried about both issues and I suggest that you shelve your discussions about pregnancy until after you’ve got them resolved.

Let’s start with the prenatal vitamins. One of the most important reasons your wife should take them now is that they contain a lot of folic acid. Folic acid (or folate) is a B vitamin that plays an important role in preventing neural tube defects, which are major defects of the brain and/or spinal cord. These defects happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy—often before a woman knows she’s pregnant. Since about half of all pregnancies in this country are unplanned, pediatricians recommend that every woman of childbearing age get 400 micrograms of folate—which is what’s in most prenatal vitamins—every day, just in case.
Interestingly, there’s some intriguing research that indicates that you could benefit from a little extra folate yourself. A recent study by McGill University researcher Sarah Kimmins found that babies born to fathers who were folate deficient were about 30 percent more likely to have birth defects than those whose dads were getting enough folate. Granted, Kimmins’ study was on mice, but she believes that the findings will be similar for human dads. How much folate you need isn’t clear, but good sources include asparagus, avocados, bananas, beans, beets, broccoli, citrus fruits, dark green veggies, eggs, lentils, seeds, and nuts.
Now, on to smoking. When a mother-to-be inhales regular cigarette smoke, her womb fills with carbon monoxide, nicotine, tar, and resins that inhibit oxygen and nutrient delivery to the baby. Maternal cigarette smoking increases the risk of low-birth-weight babies and miscarriage. There’s also some evidence that paternal smoking is just as bad. If you think the baby is somehow protected from your smoke by being inside your partner, you’re dangerously wrong. Bottom line: Quit now, and try to get your wife to do the same. A lot of men put off quitting—or asking their partners to quit—out of fear that withdrawal might lead to some marital tension. Bad choice. The potential danger to your baby far outweighs the danger to your relationship.
Oh, and as for e-cigarettes? Don’t go there. While they’re less toxic than tobacco cigarettes, and they cut down on second-hand smoke, they’re hardly safe. Most e-cigs use liquid nicotine, which, besides being addictive, can cause high blood pressure and other heart-related issues in your wife, and can reduce blood flow to the placenta, potentially doing permanent damage to your baby. E-cigs may also contain propelyne glycol, which, when heated can turn into a powerful carcinogen, according to Stanton Glantz, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. Glantz and his team also found that far from being the “harmless vapor” e-cig companies claim, the stuff smokers are inhaling contains nanoparticles, which can irritate the lungs and aggravate asthma and other breathing issues. And the second-hand-smoke exhaled by e-cig smokers contains those same chemicals and nanoparticles, so no vaping for you either.

Do Fathers Matter?

Paul Raeburn, author of Do Fathers Matter?
What science tells us about the parent we’ve overlooked.
Issues: What do fathers do? The father’s important role in child children’s life from conception through the teen years; how being a father (or father-to-be) actually rewires men’s brains; What we need to do to support and encourage fathers.