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Why Fathers Must Stay in the Picture for Optimal Child Health

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"When my girlfriend told me she was pregnant, I was horrified. We were both so young, with plans to travel, go see the world," Jamal recalls of his initial stages of fatherhood. "Through many an evening we sat in the garden and talked and talked and talked about this unborn baby. Both our parents were very supportive, and the close bond I have with my father helped me to start appreciating what lay ahead of me: fatherhood."

But many young fathers-to-be are less fortunate and committed. They disappear, abandon their girlfriends and never take part in their child's life.

Many people talk about "deadbeat dads" and "missing fathers." Who are these men and why are they not involved in their children's lives?

I have attended births over the past 30 years and spoken to many fathers. Many men admit to feeling overwhelmed, ill-prepared and really scared when they hear that their partners are pregnant. Excited and happy as well, but that does not diminish the fear. Fear of responsibility -- social, financial and other wise.

Men in our societies generally have little initiation, preparation or support for parenthood. If they attend the prenatal visits during pregnancy, there is little offered for them. Childbirth preparation classes focus on the woman and how to support her. There are no baby showers for dads where they can share "dad stories," or "Father Support" groups to help them navigate fatherhood.

In too many countries, fathers are not even allowed to be with their partners in labor or for the birth. Isn't this appalling? They are prevented from bonding with their children at birth but are expected to be present for the rest of their lives. Let's just say parenting is like a marathon, or more like an obstacle course. The fathers in this case sign up to run, but they are not invited to the start line.

Few companies give more than 1 or 2 paternity days off to their male employees. In some medical institutions, when a child is hospitalized the policy states that only a mother can stay overnight with them.

What are we doing to our fathers? What are we doing for our fathers? How can we include them in more than just a token way in pregnancy, labour and birth? How could this impact throughout the child's life?

Studies show that when fathers are involved in the preparation and decisions during pregnancy, there are less complications and unnecessary interventions; babies have fewer complications at birth and breastfeeding rates increase.

When fathers are present for the birth, it arouses their nurturing instincts. They describe the experience as powerful, unforgettable and life-altering -- the most amazing experience they have ever witnessed.

In the U.S., studies showed that children who live without their fathers were 2-3 times more likely to use alcohol and drugs, have emotional and health challenges, and become involved in criminal activities.

Are you aware of the policies and practices for birthing choices for fathers in your country/area? In those that allow fathers into the birthing experience, let us encourage more fathers to participate. In those countries/areas where it is not allowed, let us advocate for change.

Share your country/area policies. What are your thoughts or ideas for how to effect change?