Are Mothers and Fathers Interchangeable?

Author: Ross Parke, Ph.D

playing with baby

As was pointed out in the section titled, "Fatherhood: Challenges and Rewards of Caring for Infants" there are lots of ways in which mothers and fathers are similar. And this is all to the good, since it provides an extra layer of protection for the infant. If one parent is unavailable, then the other parent can step in and provide the necessary caregiving support. But before you think that there is complete interchangeability, let's take a closer look at how mothers and fathers behave with their infants. You know from your own experience and watching men and women with their babies that there are some distinctive characteristics in the ways that men and women behave with babies. (For more information see Parke "Fatherhood", 1996, Harvard University Press.) Mothers and fathers each have their own style of relating to infants, especially when playing with their babies. Mothers talk to babies during play more than fathers; yes, dads talk to their infants too but just not as much as mothers do. Mothers use toys when playing with their babies; they will shake a rattle or wave a stuffed toy to attract the infant's attention. Toys are a valuable part of early play between parents and infants; toys come in different shapes, sizes, colors and textures and even make different sounds. Toys are an opportunity to expand the baby's world by stimulating their multiple senses.

dad horseplay with baby

While mothers are playing with toys, they act as teachers as well by labeling colors "look at the red rattle," by describing shapes "what a nice round ball" or even commenting on the texture "this bear is really soft ". Dads play with toys too but not as often. If they do they are more likely to use the toy in a unique way such as tickling or gently poking the baby with the toy. So if mom's specialty is talking and playing, what about dads? Dads like to physically engage their infant by tickling, bouncing and gently poking their infants. It is important to note that dads need to adjust their play to suit the age and capability of their babies. With young infants, gentle touching, rocking or stroking are appropriate forms of play. As the infant develops and becomes stronger and better coordinated, tickling, bouncing and careful lifting become more common. When infants begin to crawl and later walk, chase games and more lifting games enter the play scene. The important point is that any form of physical stimulation be controlled, safe and age appropriate for the baby since too rough or too vigorous play can harm the infant.

"Dads need to adjust their play to suit the age and capability of their babies.
With young infants, gentle touching, rocking or stroking are appropriate forms of play."

In fact, dads more than moms need to be aware of this issue of the intensity of play since dad's play is generally more vigorous than mothers' typical play. Mothers' play is generally calmer, less arousing, steadier and more predictable than father's play. Mothers' play has been described as a gentle wave that changes slowly over time with only shallow peaks and valleys. There is enough change to keep the baby engaged but it is not highly arousing either. Dads' play, on the other hand, is more arousing, more unpredictable and more exciting. Their play has higher peaks and lower valleys. Instead of being wave-like, it is more jagged in tempo and more unpredictable. Fathers' play is like a badly designed hand saw with some saw teeth very long and others short, but organized in a random pattern. It has often been said that mothers try to keep babies calm because they often end up with the task of calming the baby when they become overexcited. In fact, when babies are upset they more often seek out their mothers but look to their dads if they want to play! Word of advice to dads: avoid arousing physical play just before nap or bedtimes. Remember that is why bed time stories were invented; they help settle the infant and make sleep more likely (see the section titled, "Preventing and Managing Infant Sleep Problems"). Dads as well as moms can share this nightly ritual with their infants and toddlers.

"Avoid arousing physical play just before nap or bedtimes.
Remember that is why bed time stories were invented; they help
settle the infant and make sleep more likely."
dad watching baby

Do these distinctive play styles of mothers and fathers make a difference to infant development? Both are important; both are enjoyed by babies; both provide unique opportunities for infants and young children to learn valuable lessons about themselves and their social and emotional worlds. Mothers provide language lessons through their talk and labeling of objects and events. Mothers also talk more about feelings and often label their infants' emotions "Are you sad little one?" "Your smile means you're happy". In this way moms help babies connect emotion labels with their internal feelings. Dad's play is important too and while they talk as well as tickle, it is through their touch and tickle routines that fathers make their biggest contribution. Play is like a dance and both partners need to learn to read the signals of the other partner. Dads need to pay close attention to the infant's facial expressions and body movements so that he can adjust the level of excitability during play so that the infant continues to enjoy the play bout. Babies frown, scowl or turn away from their partner if the play ceases to be fun due to too much stimulation. Or a wide smile or joyful laughter can tell dad that their baby is having fun and to keep going. Dads gain valuable lessons in how to read their infant's emotional signals during these playful exchanges. By using these signals to communicate to their dad, babies are learning a valuable lesson too--that by their actions and expressions they can control the actions of their caregiver. Over repeated rounds of play over weeks, months and years they learn to use their signals to tell dad when the level of play is getting out of hand or when it is just right. They are learning lessons about how emotions can be used to regulate other people's behavior. They also learn lessons not only in how to regulate dad's play but they learn how to calm themselves after being excited as well. And by watching dad's behavior and his emotional expressions infants learn to read and understand other people's emotions too. So dads have a much greater role in emotional lives of infants than we used to imagine; so do moms but each contributes to the mastery of emotions in different ways.

"Dads need to pay close attention to the infant's facial expressions and body movements so that he can adjust the level of excitability during play so that the infant continues to enjoy the play bout."
bathing child

Do fathers matter and for whom? Everyone assumes that mothers matter to their infant's successful development but fathers matter too and a close, warm father-infant relationship provides added value beyond the mother's contribution to infant development. Babies with good relationships with their fathers are socially, physically, emotionally and cognitively better off than those with a poor relationship with their dads. So remember dads that your contribution is important too! Fathers are important not only for promoting infant development but play a clear role in maintaining their partner's mental and physical health too. Dads are an important part of the family system and provide much needed support and relief for mothers through their active sharing of caregiving responsibilities such as diapering, feeding, bathing and soothing (see section titled, "Parenting Well When Emotions Run High"). In turn, mothers with helpful partners experience less stress, fewer illnesses and in the long run enjoy their time with their infant even more.

The keys to successful sharing between caregiving partners are mutual respect and trust. Mothers sometimes act as gatekeepers and subtly limit their partner's involvement ("oh, he's not really interested" or "he's just not up to the task of caregiving"). These are often excuses to limit dad's participation but these restrictions can be bad for both the mothers themselves and their babies. If dad isn't a perfect diaper changer or is not sure how to effectively calm their infant, give him some helpful hints. Just as women learn to do these tasks, men can learn too.

"Dads are an important part of the family system and provide much needed support and relief for mothers through their active sharing of caregiving responsibilities such as diapering, feeding, bathing and soothing." Finally, fathering is good for men too. Being an involved father can be a source of pride and satisfaction. By getting involved with babies, men can allow their "softer side" to develop; they learn about empathy, sensitivity and emotional understanding through their time with babies. And over time, men who are actively involved fathers are more "generative"--they are more likely to do things that help others and help their communities. They volunteer more, they coach more, they teach more and share more than men who are less involved fathers. Fathers are good for babies but babies are good for men too!