In response to the pandemic fathers in affected areas have been forced to work from home or stood down and their movement outside the home has been curtailed. In-person contact with workplace colleagues, family and friends has been severely restricted or prohibited.

For fathers approaching the birth or at home with a new baby, lockdowns and COVID restrictions have changed the way that they can support their partner through the pregnancy or care for their new infant.

Being at home with the new baby has given some fathers a chance to be more involved in their day-to-day care, see every aspect of their development and form a strong bond. 1, 2 However international research on the effects of lockdown have found that many fathers will be highly stressed due to financial and family pressures. 1, 3, 4 Being forced to be at home, especially with limitations on going out or meeting with others, has made fathering more stressful. 1, 5

An Australian study found that fathers’ high stress rates increased from 5% to 25% over the period of the COVID-19 lockdown. Fathers who had lost employment had significantly higher stress levels than men who had lost employment who had no children to support. 4

Lockdowns have changed the pressure and expectations on fathers. In the context of lockdown, mothers also have higher stress because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 restrictions, testing and vaccinations.2, 5, 6 In this situation their primary support person, the father, becomes even more central to her well-being and ability to manage distress.  1, 6, 7, 8

For those dads approaching the birth of their first child, being excluded from antenatal visits has meant less connection to the pregnancy and the upcoming birth. 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 Where hospitals, for safety reasons allow only one support person for mothers, fathers may also become the only family support person during and after the birth in situations where regulations for visiting and postnatal care may change overnight. 12

Fathers who in normal circumstances would return to work within two weeks of the birth, taking up their role as provider of financial and after-hours support, must instead juggle working from home with care for their partner and their new baby.

One avenue of support for expectant and new fathers is the SMS program developed at The University of Newcastle which delivers brief text messages to fathers’ mobile phones from 12 weeks into the pregnancy until the baby is a year old (www.SMS4dads.com).

The SMS4dads program has recently been tested with over 5,000 NSW fathers and from September 1 funding from the federal government is making it available to fathers across Australia.

The texts have been adapted for the pandemic conditions. The brief messages offer tips and information on father-infant bonding and ways to support their partner before and after the birth. Regular Mood Checker interactive texts help manage feelings and highly distressed fathers are linked to mental health support.

While the SMS4dads program cannot address factors such as financial strain, fathers have found it provides a channel of reliable information, connection and support. “Like a mate tapping you on the shoulder” as one participant described the messages.

Research suggests that fathers who are able to identify positive aspects of the change situation, for example enjoying seeing their baby develop day by day because they are not at work, are likely to have lower stress levels than those who can only find negative features of their change situation.15

The SMS4dads program will be adding messages to further enhance father infant bonding during the lockdown and an online SMS4dads antenatal program is being developed for fathers approaching the birth.

AUTHOR

RICHARD FLETCHER  Associate Professor Richard Fletcher is the principal investigator of the SMS4dads research project

References

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