New research on significance of father involvement

Fathers who interact more with their children in their first few months of life could have a positive impact on their baby's cognitive development.

In a study, published in the Infant Mental Health Journal, researchers from Imperial College London, King’s College London and Oxford University looked at how fathers interacted with their babies at three months of age and measured the infants’ cognitive development more than a year later.

They found that babies whose fathers were more engaged and active when playing with them in their initial months performed better in cognitive tests at two years of age. The researchers say that while a number of factors are critical in a child’s development, the relatively unexplored link between quality father-infant interactions at a young age may be an important one.

Professor Paul Ramchandani, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial and who led the research, said: “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, and that really hasn't been shown much before.”

In the study, researchers recorded video of parents interacting with their children, with mothers and fathers playing with their babies without toys, at three months, and then during a book-reading session at two years of age. The videos were then observed independently by trained researchers, with different researchers at three months and 24 months grading the fathers on their interactions.

At two years of age, they scored the baby’s cognitive development using the standardised Bayley mental development index (MDI) – which involved tasks such as recognising colours and shapes.

After analysing data for 128 fathers, and accounting for factors such as their income and age, they found a positive correlation between the degree to which dads engaged with their babies and how the children scored on the tests. Dads with more positive outlooks were also more likely to have babies who performed better on the MDI scales.


Father-child interactions at 3 months and 24 months: contributions to children’s cognitive development at 24 months’ by Sethna V, et al. is published in the Infant Mental Health Journal.

The quality of father–child interactions has become a focus of increasing research in the field of child development. We examined the potential contribution of father–child interactions at both 3 months and 24 months to children's cognitive development at 24 months. Observational measures of father–child interactions at 3 and 24 months were used to assess the quality of fathers’ parenting (n = 192). At 24 months, the Mental Developmental Index (MDI) of the Bayley Scales of Infant Development, Second Edition (N. Bayley, 1993) measured cognitive functioning. The association between interactions and cognitive development was examined using multiple linear regression analyses, adjusting for paternal age, education and depression, infant age, and maternal sensitivity. Children whose fathers displayed more withdrawn and depressive behaviors in father–infant interactions at 3 months scored lower on the MDI at 24 months. At 24 months, children whose fathers were more engaged and sensitive as well as those whose fathers were less controlling in their interactions scored higher on the MDI. These findings were independent of the effects of maternal sensitivity. Results indicate that father–child interactions, even from a very young age (i.e., 3 months) may influence children's cognitive development. They highlight the potential significance of interventions to promote positive parenting by fathers and policies that encourage fathers to spend more time with their young children.

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