It is Health Visitor Week this week and we are currently marking the Year of the Dad here in Scotland, so this is the perfect time to talk about how we as health visitors and family support organisations can help support men to play a more prominent role in the first years of their child’s lives.

The relationship between a baby and their parents or carers is critical for their brain development. Those children who have a positive relationship with a male role model ultimately have better outcomes in their health and wellbeing. It is recognised that men who adopt a more active parenting role are able to give more support to their partner, improving both parents’ capacity for raising their child.

Yet our paternity policies and culture mean that the vast majority of the support we all provide to new families is focused on supporting mums. If we want to get men more involved, we need to be better at developing services targeted to them.

Although our society often expects that mum will adopt the main caring role for their child we already know that many women have had limited experience of looking after children until they give birth and, as a consequence, they experience a lack of confidence in their ability.

This is why mums are the focus of most of the support given to new parents.

But we know that dads also struggle. The World Health Organisation found that dads and male carers are often ill prepared for childbirth and this is heightened if they are from a poorer economic background or are young.

There are often psychological barriers that affect a man’s confidence in seeking support as well as practical barriers that impact on his ability to get any help that might be available. Adding to these challenges is the ongoing stereotype among many groups that men are the breadwinners for the family and not seen to be adopting nurturing roles.

There is a vital need for everyone involved in early years, health, education and social welfare to understand and promote a gender-balanced approach to parenting.

New ways of working where both parents’ contribution is respected and emphasised can help move social attitudes away from damaging stereotypes. Value must be placed on all parents gaining the techniques and experiences needed for positive, proactive parenting.

If we are to adopt a gender-balanced approach to parenting we need to actively encourage men to embrace hands-on parenting, and promote it.

In 2015, the UK government introduced a policy of shared parental leave. However a study conducted by the Trades Union Congress, highlighted that many dads and male carers are not eligible to apply for this and therefore these new changes will actually have a minimal effect for working men.

It means too many men still miss the opportunity at this critical period to form positive attachment and a relationship with their baby. This needs to be addressed, and men need to be encouraged to take more paternity leave where they can.

However, it is not only government policy where changes should be made. It is important that all parents and carers have the opportunity to be included and participate when professionals visit the family home to promote and encourage positive parenting techniques. But often many are not present due to the issues discussed earlier. So we all need to be more flexible and innovative to create new ways of engaging men as well as women.

It means more support at evenings and weekends, running more activities based around men supporting other men, and encouraging more men to get involved in volunteering.

Sensitive and caring parenting can be facilitated and mirrored through observation also with support from other parents or volunteers from agencies such as Home-Start UK Scotland.

Many countries in the EU already have an alternative approach to supporting new parents. In the Year of the Dad, let’s challenge ourselves to learn from their success. Let’s not be afraid to change what does not work, and let’s create a system that supports everyone in the family.


Debbie Wishart is a lecturer at the School of Nursing & Midwifery focusing on the BSc (Hons) Public Health Nursing course. Debbie trained at the Tayside School of Nursing and Midwifery in 1992. Since then she has worked in the Dundee area, both in the acute and community setting. Debbie has been a registered health visitor, practice teacher and registered nurse. 


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