RATIONALE AND STRATEGIES FOR ENGAGING FATHERS IN MATERNAL AND INFANT HEALTH PROGRAMS:
A Summary of Promising Practices
Amina Alio, PhD
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Why involve fathers in maternal and infant health?
Fathers and men have long been either ignored or an add-on to maternal and infant health (MIH) programs, yet the importance of engaging them in MIH work has been increasingly noted in the past few decades. Research findings indicate that fathers’ engagement in their children’s lives is important for fetal growth, infant and childhood development, health and social well-being. In this report we present a summary of the evidence for the role or impact of fathers across the reproductive life span: before and in-between pregnancies, during pregnancy and after delivery (pre-/inter-conception, prenatal and postnatal).
Before and in-between pregnancies. Men have an important role to play in family planning and can influence contraception use. Their involvement in reproductive health planning is crucial to reducing unintended pregnancies and increasing use of birth control and protection from sexually transmitted infections that can impact pregnancy outcomes when contracted by the mother. Additionally, men’s health and preconception risk behaviors have been shown to have a direct impact on fetal and infant health. Paternal abuse of alcohol, smoking (cigarettes, marijuana), diet, environmental exposures, among others, have been shown to modify genetic makeup passed on through the sperm at conception which in turn can influence the health of the child as well as future illnesses in adulthood.1
During pregnancy. Based on research findings, fathers indirectly impact fetal development, birth weight, and preterm birth. This is proposed to be primarily through their effect on maternal well-being, stress levels and behaviors during pregnancy. When fathers or partners are involved and supportive of the mother during pregnancy, mothers tend to obtain prenatal care earlier, smoke/drink alcohol/use illicit drugs less, exercise more, and eat healthier while pregnant.2, 3 The involvement of fathers during pregnancy has been associated with reduced risk of very low birth weight, small for gestational age, and pre-term birth.4 Similarly, when fathers were not involved, pregnancy outcomes were at higher risk for negative birth outcomes.
After delivery. In the first months of infancy, fathers can influence important maternal behaviors such as breastfeeding. Study findings indicate that when fathers are on board, they have an influence on the decision of mothers to initiate and continue breastfeeding.5 Fathers can encourage a positive attitude towards breastfeeding and provide practical support to the mother of their child. Often, fathers want to support breastfeeding and encourage their partners to do so, but they feel left out of breastfeeding education and promotion.
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University of Rochester Medical Center, NYS Maternal & Infant Health Center of Excellence