A recent study published in the Infant Mental Health Journal suggests that positive father-infant interactions beginning as early as 3 months can impact cognitive abilities at 2 years. These findings suggest the importance of involving fathers in early intervention to improve infants’ outcomes.
The importance of the mother-infant bond has been documented in the scientific literature. A well-established mother-infant bond fosters optimal biological, psychological, and social child development. As traditional gender roles shift, researchers have also focused on fathers’ roles in childcare, including the nature of father-child interaction and the impact of interaction on child development.
Studies that have focused on the impact of father-child interactions on children’s cognitive development generally show that supportive, sensitive, and stimulating interactions boost cognitive development; however, findings are mixed and differences in methodologies and samples make comparisons difficult. Many studies have been conducted with disadvantaged families or children who have surpassed infancy, and it is not clear whether these findings generalize to families of higher socioeconomic status or to interactions with infants. Further, mothers’ and fathers’ self-reports of paternal interactions may lend themselves to bias.
To address these and other gaps in the literature, Sethna and colleagues investigated the relationship between father-infant interactions at 3 and 24 months and children’s cognitive skills at 24 months. They also tested to see whether the child’s gender would influence the relationship between paternal interactions and cognitive skills. They hypothesized that positive father-infant interactions would enhance infants’ cognitive skills at 3 and 24 months, over and above the effects of maternal sensitivity, infant age, and paternal age, education, and psychopathology. Based on similar findings in previous research, they also hypothesized that the association between interactions and cognitive skills would be stronger for sons than daughters.
A total of 192 participants were recruited into the study from the maternity wards of two hospitals in the United Kingdom. Parents had to be English speakers over the age of 18 at the time of the child’s birth. Other inclusion criteria included a birth weight of at least 2,500 grams, gestation of at least 37 weeks, and no congenital abnormities. On average, fathers were approximately 35 years of age, and nearly all participants were Caucasian, and married or living with a partner. Overall, the sample was middle-class and fathers had relatively high levels of education. Infants had a mean age of 14.5 weeks and about half were female.
Data were collected at 3 and 24 months in families’ homes. At 3 months, fathers were instructed to play with their infants for 3 minutes without using toys and their interactions were videotaped. At 24 months, fathers engaged in 2 minutes of free-play and a 5-minute book session. At this time, cognitive development was also assessed using the Mental Development Index (MDI) subscale of the Bayley Scale of Infant Development.
Researchers rated paternal behaviors at 3 months based on a coding scheme of 13 paternal behaviors (e.g., sensitivity, remoteness, intrusiveness, depressed affect). They used a similar scheme at 24 months, identifying behaviors under the broad domains of sensitivity, control, engagement, and cognitive stimulation.
At 3 months, paternal remoteness and depressive affect were associated with infants’ cognitive skills as measured by the MDI at 24 months. In particular, infants with fathers who expressed more positive affect and who were less remote and more engaged had higher cognitive scores. At 24 months, infants whose fathers showed higher levels of paternal engagement and less control (i.e., less intrusiveness) during the free play session had better MDI scores. During the book session, higher levels of paternal sensitivity and cognitive stimulation and lower levels of control were associated with higher cognitive scores. Contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis, gender did not influence the relationship between paternal behaviors and cognitive abilities at either time point.
While these findings corroborate those of many previous studies, the researchers suggest that their study is the first longitudinal examination of the effect of paternal interactions on cognitive skills among infants as young as 3 months of age. The study is limited by the white, middle class sample, as findings may not generalize to ethnic minorities or those of different socioeconomic classes. Additionally, the coding scheme used by the researchers to identify paternal behaviors has not been widely tested. Overall, the findings suggest that prevention and intervention programs to enhance cognitive skills in children should target paternal interactions at very young ages.
Written By: Suzanne M. Robertson, Ph.D