After having a baby, fathers in Norway are entitled to up to 15 weeks of fully paid leave and another 16 weeks of parental leave shared between fathers and mothers (in addition to the 18 weeks of paid leave that mothers already get).
In countries with less generous social policies, the situation is completely different—particularly in the United States, which does not even have a national policy for parental leave. Here, an average of only around a quarter of workers have access to some form of paid family leave, and family leave is not equally accessible, with around three-quarters of workers in Fortune 500 companies receiving this benefit. Even in these companies, the leave fathers can access is typically less than five weeks.
By keeping new fathers at work, these policies are not only making parenting much more difficult for both parents, they may also be disrupting the relationship between fathers and children and even children’s development. Promoting better parental leave policies across the globe—and encouraging fathers to take advantage of them—are crucial for family well-being.
The benefits of father-baby time
Across less than two generations, fatherhood has undergone tremendous changes in Western countries, with fathers becoming much more involved in child care. In 1970, fathers worked around 50 hours per week and spent around 11 minutes on weekdays and 25 minutes on weekends providing care for their children. When you fast forward to 2010, fathers worked around 35 hours per week and spent over an hour per day on child care.
Fathers’ direct interactions with babies are important in the earliest weeks and months of their lives. Researchers acknowledge that the quality of time between fathers and babies is important, but the quantity of time matters, too. It takes time for fathers to get to know their babies. The more time they spend together, the more fathers become aware of their baby’s preferences and the better they can read and become attuned to their body language and signals.
Fathers who spend more time providing care for their children tend to show greater brain activity patterns in the connection between the amygdala and the superior temporal sulcus—two brain areas that are thought to be part of a global parental caregiving network.
What’s more, physical contact between newborns and fathers nurtures bonding and healthy development. A recent study found that preterm babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit who have “kangaroo care” (skin-to-skin contact) with their fathers experience the same physiological benefits as they do after contact with their mothers. Another recent study found that fathers who more often playfully touch their babies tend to have more oxytocin—a hormone known to support social connection and bonding—circulating in their bloodstream.
While we know more about a father’s role in children’s development in Western European and North American families, a recent research study shows the benefits that father-child relationships can have in Chinese children. While overall father involvement is relatively low in rural China, babies whose fathers are more involved in their daily lives tend to have greater cognitive, language, and social-emotional skills.
These findings are important because a 2022 study found relatively high rates of delayed social-emotional development among young children in rural China: in 44% of infants, 61% of toddlers, and 52% of preschoolers. What’s more, 61% of children experienced persistent delay or deteriorating social-emotional development between birth and preschool. While there is no single solution to this problem, the researchers recommend government social policies like paid paternal leave.
As a key figure in the overall family system, fathers continue to be essential influences on children’s development into the early and later years of children’s lives—through their parenting, as well as their marital or partner relationship and coparenting relationship. Although about 50 years of research have documented how fathers matter for children’s development, we’ve only just scratched the surface: Scientists acknowledge we need more research with fathers.
Encouraging fathers to take leave
National efforts making paid paternity leave widely available to more fathers across the globe would be a significant step to support fathers’ transition to parenthood and, in turn, their children’s development. But even when paid paternity leave is available, researchers have found that less than 5% of expecting fathers take more than two weeks in the United States, and, when they do take leave, more than half of expecting fathers take only one week or less.
Why? A recent study by Sarah Thébaud and David Pedulla found that expecting fathers’ and mothers’ willingness to use work-family policies can depend on the financial costs—whether parental leave is fully or only partially paid.
Another factor is whether there are informal workplace expectations that perpetuate the threat of social, economic, or career penalties to fathers. Researchers call this “flexibility stigma”—a cultural belief that paints a picture of workers who use parental leave policies as poor-quality or undeserving. Apart from the direct financial costs of paternity leave, fathers can feel pressured not to use paternity leave to maintain the image of an “ideal worker” so that they don’t risk lower performance reviews and pay, or jeopardize their chances of promotion.
But flexibility stigma doesn’t only affect fathers, it can contribute to decreased workplace satisfaction and increased staff turnover in all types of workers. Researchers suggest that flexibility stigma is toxic for the whole workplace culture because employees don’t like to work for an organization that discriminates against those who are trying to achieve work-life balance.
What can help fathers use paternity leave? Unsurprisingly, fathers are more likely to take paternity leave when it’s paid, so that they don’t incur financial loss, and when it’s offered as a “use it or lose it” benefit. Expecting fathers tend to use paternity leave when their coworkers and brothers do, too. Thébaud and Pedulla also found that explicitly reducing flexibility stigma can be important. When employees are directly reassured at their workplace that taking parental leave will not harm their careers, they are more likely to use parental leave.
At a time when more Americans are growing concerned about how we’re failing our children, one important way to support children right at the start is by taking care of fathers during one of the most critical times in their lives—when they first become parents.