After a long day with baby, mom is more than ready to hand her little one off to dad. The problem? Baby wants mama, and only mama. What’s a willing and capable dad to do when an infant seems to always prefer to be with mom?
Don’t worry, dad. It’s not just you. Almost every baby has a preference for mom, says Dr. Harvey Karp, author of the Happiest Baby on the Block.
“They’re getting their most immediate needs met by their mom on a regular basis many times a day—reward of sweet milk, the feeling of soft skin,” says Karp. “Dads are not usually as involved in meeting the baby’s needs, so they develop a natural preference for their mother.”
So one of the best ways to help your baby get used to being with dad is to get in there and get your hands dirty—giving baths, changing diapers, giving bottles, infant massage and lots of cuddling, especially with skin-to-skin contact.
Karp also tells dads to watch how they handle their babies. Oftentimes, moms use a more gentle touch or speak in a singsong voice, which babies prefer.
“Men oftentimes are more hesitant to do that, but it makes baby feel more comforted,” he says.
There’s one area that men often excel at, says Karp, and that’s getting a baby to sleep. In his book, he covers the 5 S’s—swinging, swaddling, shushing, side position and sucking—and these techniques are where dad can really shine.
“Swaddling is like an engineering job. Men have arms that are a little longer and stronger for holding,” says Karp. “Men tend to shush a little louder and jiggle a little more, and many babies need that to get to sleep.”
Dr. Laura Markham, child psychologist and author of AhaParenting.com, recommends that dads look for bonding experiences when their babies are already in a good mood. That’s a great time to play peek-a-boo or look at a toy or book together, she says. Creating those positive experiences when your baby is already happy will help to set the stage for when she’s a bit more cranky.
So what should dad do when “happy baby” has left the building?
The number one thing Markham recommends is to stay calm. Human brains are wired with “mirror neurons,” she says, which allow our brains to take on other people’s emotions.
“If dad can stay calm, the baby is going to pick up from dad that it’s not an emergency,” says Markham. “At that point, the baby begins to calm down, and once the alert system is calmed down, then the baby looks at who they’re with, and says, ‘Oh, I’m with dad. Dad’s making everything safe.’”
But staying calm isn’t so easy, especially when dad feels like he’s not enough.
“A dad thinks to himself, ‘I’m stuck with this baby who just wants to be with mom, and he’s rejecting me. I’m standing between my child and his mother,’” Markham says.
If you feel these kinds of thoughts coming on, do your best to try to let those feelings go.
“With children of all ages, the best way to deal with their behavior is to start by not taking it personally,” she says. “It’s always a good idea to start by taking a deep breath and start by reminding yourself: ‘This is about them. This is not about me.’”
But if baby’s preference for mom seems like it will never end, just wait a few months. Karp says all of this crying for mama will go away eventually.
“There’s payback,” says Karp. “All of that can shift around dramatically when the child is 1-½ to 2, when they love newness and novelty. Then dads can become the heroes, and moms become yesterday’s fish.”
Megan Cottrell is a freelance writer and mom with a young son.