The Salt Lake Tribune

U. Study Says Dads Are Important, Too

Friday, April 5, 2002 BY ASHLEY E. BROUGHTON

When it comes to happy babies, does father know best?

A new University of Utah study shows infants who enjoy close relationships with their fathers seem to cope better with emotional stress.

"Society tends to stress the importance of mothers over fathers, especially in caring for infants," said Marissa Diener, assistant professor of Family and Consumer Studies, who conducted the research. "This study shows that fathers are important for infants' emotional development."

But don't worry, Mom. Baby still thinks you are No. 1.

The study, to be published in the May issue of the journal Infancy, measured 100 babies' reactions to the absence of a mom or dad and the presence of a stranger. It also gauged how babies calm themselves by using such coping skills as thumb-sucking and snuggling in a blanket.

The less stressed-out babies seem confident dad will be there to soothe or meet their needs. Insecurely attached babies were more agitated and did not seem sure where dad was or when he might show up.

The 100 12-month-olds, each from two-parent families, were subjected to a series of separations and reunions with father and mother in experiments conducted a month apart. Each parent took turns leaving the infant alone with a stranger and then returning for a reunion. Then, both adults left the baby alone, with the stranger returning first.

The separations lasted less than three minutes. One-year-olds were chosen for the research because separation anxiety involving parents and anxiety about unfamiliar situations peak at about 12 months of age.

"The majority of [children] were comfortable with the strange situation but uncomfortable alone," Diener said. "The most common reaction to the reunion with a parent was they were happy to see the parent, then they stopped crying and began playing again."

Babies who had secure relationships with their fathers tended to use more coping tactics -- distracting themselves with objects, for example -- than those who did not. They were also more flexible with their strategies, using another when one was not working, Diener said.

"If you want your parent to play with you, and they're ignoring you, you put your hand in the outlet, play with couch cushions, suck your thumb, pull on the parent," she said. "They can't talk, but they can get your attention."

Insecure infants made fewer attempts to calm themselves down, instead crying, whining and making sad faces.

Other studies have found a connection between emotional development and a child's relationship with its mother, Diener said, and she expected to find that as well. "People emphasize mothers so much with infants."

However, Diener found dads were important, too. Does it mean dad has replaced mom as the favorite parent? No, she said.

But, "there may be something unique to fathers that provides children with different opportunities to regulate their emotions," she said.

© Copyright 2002, The Salt Lake Tribune