Isn’t it normal for a breastfed infant of three months to respond more to his mother than his father? Our son is a generally happy child. He has recently started smiling, laughing, and sharing flirtatious eye contact. However, it seems as though I’m on the receiving end of these happy moments more than his father. This has sent my husband into spirals of depression. He’s convinced that his son hates him, and more, that they will never forge a connection. Moreover, his despair is sometimes tinged with a mild anger, and he’s started to make hurtful comments about the ways in which I’m “forcing myself” onto our son, which he says is why I’m getting all the happy responses. These sorts of comments have started to make me feel guilty about the smiles and baby love that, until recently, thrilled me to no end. I know I’ve got no reason to feel this way, but can’t seem to shake it. Is this fatherly response a normal stage that he’ll grow out of? Is there any study out there I can point him to, to prove that our son’s behavior is normal? – M.
It is normal for a nursing baby at this age to be mother-centric. It’s also normal for the father of a nursing baby at this age to feel left out and depressed. It’s not guaranteed to happen – everyone bonds at different times for different reasons – but there’s plenty to explain why it can.
Your three-month-old baby’s world revolves almost entirely around feeding. So he spends a huge amount of time physically connected to your body. There is a lot of research on the mom-baby bond, fed by the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, which is released during breastfeeding and close newborn contact. The connection is so close, some refer to the mother and baby at this point as not two separate people but as a symbiotic “mother-baby dyad.”
Lots of dads deal with jealousy around this issue. Whether it’s focused on the mom or the kid, the theme is usually the same: Dad’s left out in the cold. Your husband’s temptation to throw up his hands in defeat is understandable. But you are right to be concerned about how he’s handling it. He seems really anxious about being a good dad, and frustrated that he’s not able to make it happen.
The first few months of a baby’s life are sometimes referred to as the fourth trimester. If we interpret that literally, the pregnancy is JUST ending now. In a few months, solids will be introduced, which is, for many, the beginning of the weaning process. But breastfeeding doesn’t have to end in order for your husband to feel connected. In fact, it’s much better for everyone to think less about subtracting from your bond with the baby, and more about adding to your husband’s. Try to reassure him that he WILL develop his own relationship with his son, and that it will get easier in time, as your baby grows more interested in the world outside your arms.
Here are a few ideas that might help him to get more comfortable and confident:
* Build routines with dad into your baby’s day. Your husband really needs the room to find his own way of comforting and connecting with your son. This might mean you need to literally leave the room, or even the house, so you should try this when you know your son’s not hungry. It might take a while for them to get into a groove, so encourage your husband to keep trying (even if initial experiences are not all that gratifying). To ease any potential pressure, you may want to frame these sessions as a break for you rather than remedial bonding time for him.
* Reassure yourselves that babies’ – and later children’s – attention is adaptable, and will be more or less focused on one parent at any given time. You won’t really know this until you’ve gone through it, but for now you’ll have to believe that it’s true. During the early months of parenthood everything can seem so heightened and final: “This is who I am as a parent!” But it’s not! Your roles (and your baby) will change constantly in subtle and not so subtle ways. And when they do, you might actually experience some jealousy yourself: “He’s the one who makes the baby laugh hysterically, I’m just a meal ticket” is one common complaint.
* Lastly, it’s important to be able to talk openly and respectfully about your feelings. Though he may not be handling it all that gracefully, your husband’s accusations come from a place of genuine hurt. It might be up to you to let him know that while it’s okay (even expected) to feel sad about being left out, it’s not okay to imply that this is some kind of pathological ploy of yours. What’s going on might not be fun for him, but it’s normal and temporary. He may want to talk to some other fathers. There are bound to be at least a few in any group who can relate, and maybe help reassure him of the fleeting nature of this particular moment of paternal angst.
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