Mothers are encouraged from the birth of their babies to spend as much time with them as possible but what about the other parent? Do babies miss dad? The answer is complicated.
Associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Jennifer Rennels, Ph.D. recently shared with Romper that while researchers have studied whether infants can distinguish their mothers from other women, less research has been spent focusing on if they can distigniush their fathers from other men.
“Infants are very good at differentiating their mother’s face from another female face as young as 2 days old (i.e., they look longer at mom’s face than the stranger’s face), but do not show this differentiation of their father’s and another male’s face at this age or even at 4 months of age,” she says. “Interestingly, however, the 4-month-olds showed more positive affect when looking at their father’s face than the stranger’s face, suggesting some recognition, albeit different from how they responded to mother’s face.”
Babies begin to realize that people continue to exist even when they are out of sight (also called “object permanence”) between 4-7 months of age. But at this age, babies do not understand the concept of time so they know mom and dad will still exist when they are not around but because they do not know how long mom and dad have been gone, they can become afraid, anxious that their caregiver will not return.
Rennels shares the primary caregiver is revealed when a parent is out of sight and the child gets upset.
“Mothers typically are the primary caregiver and spend more time with their babies than fathers, even though fathers’ involvement with their babies has increased over the years,” she explains. “If fathers are serving as the primary caregiver or at least engaging in care taking at the same level as mom, we might expect infants to display separation anxiety when their dad leaves.”
That being said, a parent’s gender doesn’t automatically define the type of bond they will have with their child.
“Secure bonds develop when fathers show sensitivity in their caregiving,” Rennels says. “Meaning they are responsive to how their infant is feeling.”
“[A baby] will respond to dad’s touch, smell, [and] presence,” Dr. David Rosenberg, M.D., Professor and Chair Department of Psychiatry Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center, shares. “And the attachment begins to get hardwired with lifelong implications.”
In addition, Rosenberg says dads can also bond with their babies by singing, touching and laughing. Ultimately, the more time they spend with their babies, the quicker and stronger their bond will be.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) it can be difficult for parents and children to go through separation anxiety but there are things parents (regardless of gender) can do do help their children to work through it.
“If a parent is leaving their baby/toddler with a new person, it is good to spend some time together with them to help the child feel comfortable with that individual,” Rennels says. “When that is established, the parent can hopefully leave without their child showing much anxiety. When toddlers develop some verbal abilities, parents can also convey where they are going and when they will be back to assure the child of when they will see them again.”
Another way to help calm your child’s anxiety is to establish quick and easy goodbye rituals like giving your child your full attention, keeping your promises and practice spending time apart.
A typical amount of separation anxiety between child and mother (and father) is a sign of a healthy parent-child bond.