We've long known that present, engaged parents are a boon for a child's development. While much attention has been paid to maternal involvement and its effect on child development, less has been known about the importance of paternal influences.
But now new research has shown how dads, especially, can help their babies learn faster.
BBC News reports that a combined team of researchers from Imperial College London, King's College London and Oxford University have discovered differences in babies as early as three months of age, with sustained paternal attachment a major factor. It was found that "children whose fathers were more engaged and sensitive, as well as those whose fathers were less controlling in their interactions, scored higher" on the Mental Developmental Index.
The study, published in the Infant Mental Health Journal, notes previous findings that men often have a "more stimulating, vigorous" playing style where the child is inspired to take risks and explore their world differently, which may stimulate brain development.
There were 128 fathers and babies in the study, with data collected at three months and 24 months of age. Fathers were filmed with their three-month-olds playing on a mat without toys, while researchers scored their interactions. Then at age two they were filmed reading a book to their toddlers and graded again. The two-year-olds also underwent tests involving shape and colour recognition for a cognitive test.
The children who scored lower in the cognitive tests had fathers who displayed more withdrawn and depressive behaviours in the experiments. The researchers wrote that "it is likely that remote fathers use fewer verbal and nonverbal strategies to communicate with their infants, thereby reducing the infant's social learning experience." This carries over to the social setting in the home, whereby fathers who give fewer social stimulation opportunities to their infants impact cognitive growth.
"Even as early as three months, these father-child interactions can positively predict cognitive development almost two years later, so there's something probably quite meaningful for later development," said research head Professor Paul Ramchandani.
Dr Vaheshta Sethna also highlighted the importance of fathers reading to their babies.
"We also found that children interacting with sensitive, calm and less anxious fathers during a book session at the age of two showed better cognitive development, including attention, problem-solving, language and social skills. This suggests that reading activities and educational references may support cognitive and learning development in these children."
Dr Sethna concluded, "Our findings highlight the importance of supporting fathers to interact more positively with their children in early infancy."