Framing messages to engage fathers in the first 1000 days

Content type
Event date

3 August 2017, 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm (AEST)


Richard Fletcher, Jennifer StGeorge, Chris May




You are in an archived section of the AIFS website 



This webinar was held on 3 August 2017.

Families do best when parents act as a team in forming a strong connection to their new baby, and this is exactly what happens in many families. In others, the stresses of the new relationship and the demands of the new baby make for less healthy outcomes. Traditionally, services that provide support to new parents have targeted mothers – and engaging fathers has been a challenge.

With mounting evidence of fathers’ contribution to children’s development, however, and the recognition of the importance of parenting partnerships in children’s wellbeing, services have started to focus on better ways to engage fathers.

This webinar provided a range of examples that illustrate effective messaging with fathers, including video-feedback, group work, SMS texts and father-child play. Strategies for successful messaging, including topics, style and mode of delivery, were also covered.

This webinar was presented in partnership with ARACY.


Slide outline: Framing messages to engage fathers in the first 1000 days

1. Framing our messages to fathers in the first 1000 days 

AIFS/ARACY Webinar August 2017

  • Dr Richard Fletcher, Craig Hammond, Dr Chris May, Dr Jennifer StGeorge, Fathers and Families Research Program,
  • Family Action Centre, Faculty of Health and Medicine, The University of Newcastle

2. Acknowledgement of country 

  • Craig Hammond who is unable to be with us
  • The team of academics, researchers, IT support, fathers and mothers who have been essential to developing this work

3. Starting questions

  • What messages about their role would you like to give fathers?
  • What aspects of the dads are you thinking of when you design your messages?
  • How well does your service deliver these messages?

4. “Our Kids need dads who…” poster project with Aboriginal communities.

  • Young Aboriginal Fathers comments
  • Finding the right words
  • Finding the right images

5. Samples of poster images

  • Picture of Berky holding his chin looking thoughtful

6. Poster

  • Our kids need dads who…Take an interest

7. “Our Kids need dads who…”

“Being an Aboriginal man living and working in the community I see the images that are out there of us (Aboriginal men). The brother in the park drinking, fighting with his wife, our kids seeing their father being taken away by the police, these are the images that we see and the media portrays of us…

When I asked the community how they felt about the negative issues, I could not stop them saying all these negative things; not a lot of positive things to talk about, they said. It did not feel good for me to hear these things and to think that these negative things are happening in many Aboriginal communities. When I then asked them about some positive things that the men are doing, they had to stop to think about it at first, then they would answer, but they had to search hard for the answer.” 
Craig Hammond

8. “Our Kids need dads who…”

“We would like the posters to talk to our men instead of everyone else telling them what they should do with or for their kids. We want the men to look at the posters and make their own decision on what they should do so they feel it is their own decision, so they can feel the emotion, hurt, sadness, happiness and all the things that go with being an Indigenous father. If a father makes a decision from looking at the posters, if it’s the right one or not, he then can’t blame anyone for his decision and then he feels the posters are talking to him and not people judging him”. 
Craig Hammond

9. Poster

  • Our kids need dads who …smile

10. Poster

  • Our kids need dads who …are there for us

11. Points

  • Starting with what children need from their fathers can gain fathers’ attention
  • Avoiding judgement is key
  • Pay attention to the messages that these fathers will already have heard

12. What messages are fathers already hearing from services?

  • Cover of booklet Connecting with Families
  • 2 women and a child pictured

13. Connecting with Families

  • 20 page booklet, 11 adult pics

14. Who is missing from this picture?

  • Web page for Mission Australia.
  • Fathers aren’t featured

15. Points

  • Check for unintended messages implying that dads are irrelevant
  • Don’t assume that when you say ‘Parent’ or ‘Family’ that the dads feel included in the message
  • Keep in mind how many times dads have been told “It’s mum who is responsible for the baby and child, not you”

16. The evidence on fatherhood

  • Biological factors
  • Father’s special influence
  • Fathers as partners in parenting

17. Study Oxytocin and fathering

  • Two father-toddler play sessions of 15 minutes one week apart
  • Give nasal spray Oxytocin to half group
  • Double blind experiment
  • Videotape and measure play 
    Naber, F., van IJzendoorn M.H., Deschamps, P., van Engeland, H., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (2010) Intranasal oxytocin increases fathers’ observed responsiveness during play with their children: A double-blind within-subject experiment Psychoneuroendocrinology 35, 1583—1586

18. Study Oxytocin and fathering

Those fathers with Oxytocin

  • Encouraged exploration more
  • Were less hostile in play

19. What is special about fathers?

What messages about their role would you like to give to fathers?

Fathers’ care and play

  • actively promotes brain development
  • helps his child master their new world
  • builds strong bond between father and child

20. What do we need to do?

  • Foster a wider view of attachment
  • Activate fathers’ strengths, skills and knowledge

The child–parent attachment relationship is at the core of improving child developmental outcomes.

21. Step 1

Foster a wider view of attachment

  • Complementary parenting
  • Secure base
    • Sensitive
    • Responsive
    • Warmth
    • Secure exploration:
      • Sensitive
      • Physically challenging
      • Psychologically challenging

22. Child and father interaction

  • Pie chart: Child’s secure exploration
  • Pie chart: Father’s sensitive challenging play

Secure exploration support…

  • Father as companion when child wary or fearful:
  • Safe-haven-seeking decreases, exploration continues.

23. Image of child at 2, 10 and 16 years

Grossman et al, Bielefeld & Regensburg Longitudinal studies

Sensitive, challenging play-dough with Dad - child’s sense of security 
** Not mothers

24. Step 2 - Activate fathers’ strengths & skills

What do they do already?

  • Challenge & scaffold
  • Rough & tumble
  • Tease & joke
  • Monitor & limit set

25. Evidence…Cognitive & psychological simulation

  • 4,200 children & their dads
  • Amount of joint reading, singing & storytelling at 9 months
  • Predicted memory, problem solving & reasoning at 2 years. 
    Cabrera, Fagan, Wight & Schadler, 2011

How does this work?

  • Fathers’ challenge embedded in conversation – Who? Why? What?
  • Rowe, Leech & Cabrera, 2016
  • Fathers’ speech more unpredictable in tone & speed 
    Benders, Fletcher & StGeorge, 2016

26. Evidence…Playful physical interaction

Table showing newborns/infants/toddlers


  • Limb flexing
  • Touch
  • Massage

Heart rate, respiration, relationship


  • Tickling
  • Swinging
  • Jiggle
  • Flying

Relationship, social skills


  • Tumbling
  • Wrestling
  • Tickle
  • Toss
  • Horsey

Emotion regulation, social skills

27. Evidence:

Rough and tumble play

  • 1,500 father-child dyads
  • Aggression, r ̅ = .08
  • Social competence, r ̅ = .44 
    St George & Freeman, 2017
  • Higher quality play - better social & emotional skills 
    Anderson, St George, Wheeler, & Roggman (2016)

28. What messages would you like to give fathers?

  • Inform
  • Encourage
  • Validate

29. Parenting in Partnership?

  • A new relationship that develops between parents
  • The relationship they share in the business of raising children
  • This is different to their romantic relationship

30. Parenting partnerships important for most children AIFS – 2010

Pie chart


  • Other partnerships
  • Step parents
  • Grandparents
  • Foster parents
  • Adopting parents


  • Australian 15 year olds live with their biological mother and father
  • This does not appear to be significantly influenced by childhood disability. Including Autism

31. Parenting partnership influence 

For children

  • Social development
  • Emotional development 
    Tuebert & Pinquart , 2010 – Systematic Review

For Parents

  • Parenting stress
  • Sense of parenting competence 
    May et al., 2014 – FAC research
  • Romantic relationship.

32. Importance of parenting partnerships Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) May et al., 2014 

  • Explored links between parenting stress and parenting partnership quality
  • Parents of children with ASD have high levels of parenting stress
  • Surveyed mothers and fathers (N=151 parents, 69 couples)
  • In depth interview (n=11 couples) Mothers and fathers interviewed separately

33. Importance of Parenting Partnerships Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)- Results

Parenting Stress = High across the cohort

  • Mean stress in clinical (risky) range
    • Same for mothers and fathers
    • Mother and father stress strongly linked = couple stress

Parenting Partnership Quality = Strongest predictor of Parenting Stress

  • Fathers (r = -.515, p < .001), Mothers (r = -.357, p < .001)

34. Importance of spousal support parents of child with ASD May et al 2014

  • Bar chart father and mother responses to surveys
  • Topics: school/daycare, professional helpers, professional agencies, all sources, spouse.
  • Spousal support stronger predictor of parenting stress for both mothers and fathers

35. What did the parents say about…roles and responsibilities

  • “I think when you disagree there has always someone that’s got to be the right person in the situation, someone whose decision you have to go with.”
  • Who said this - mum or a dad?
  • Parenting a child with ASD influenced parenting roles, responsibilities & the sense of authority.

36. Shared endeavour & role differentiation

“If we didn’t agree on what our goals were, and … have that understanding of roles. … I don’t think Toby would have the opportunities to develop.”

  • Mum or dad?
  • Mothers took on a more central role but this didn’t appear to diminish the importance of their partnership.

37. Parenting partnership competence May et al., 2017

“Having the knowledge yeh, you’ve got to have the knowledge how to do it, but if you don’t have the teamwork then it is not going to work very well.”

  • Mum or dad?
  • Parents valued a sense of parenting partnership competence that…
  • Had helped them to cope with the diagnosis,
  • Was supporting their child to achieve developmental potential
  • Would enable them to develop shared expectations for their child’s future.

38. Partnership messaging in the first 1000 days

  • When mums and dads are laying the foundations on which their parenting partnerships will stand in the coming years
  • Messages can …
  • Alert parents to the importance of their parenting partnership
  • Encourage supportive behaviours
  • Acknowledge different roles and responsibilities
  • Promote cooperation, communication and coordination
  • Inspire tolerance/appreciation & potentially minimise conflict

39. Screenshot of SMS for Dads website homepage

40. Who can enrol

  • From anywhere in Australia
  • Partner (married or not) is pregnant
  • Infant is less than three months of age at the time of enrolment
  • The messages are sent until the baby is 12 months of age or until the dad opts out

41. Messages

  • It is important for me to sleep in a safe place and in a safe position dad. Get more info on safe sleeping from … [*Static Link*]
  • So I pass a lot of wind. Well I am growing fast and I have to eat a lot so my gut is very busy. What’s your excuse dad? [Txt STOP to OptOut]

42. Messages

  • If you’ve been at work all day you might be able to support mum by taking me out for a walk dad. This will also give us more bonding time.
  • Working together in these early months is important. How can you find agreement on the best thing to do when caring for your baby? [Txt STOP to OptOut]

43. Screenshot of Moodtracker app

44.From exit interviews

Any messages you recall?

  • “Just a baby… Will usually cry if there is something wrong. A reminder that they are not trying to annoy you”
  • Yes- One message about regular physical touching to connect with my partner
  • About her need to rest and breastfeeding and that she has no time off. ..To help with the chores and supporting her.

45. Follow on from this webinar

  • Discuss the messages that you want to send to dads with others in your workplace
  • Sign up for the Fatherhood Research Bulletin (it’s free)
  • Think about our Masters in Family Studies online courses “Working with fathers in vulnerable families” and “Father-infant attachment and coparenting”
  • And tell all the new mums and dads about SMS4dads and send them to the website to register.

46. Image of Fatherhood Research Bulletin

  • free
  • every 2 months
  • summaries of research
  • what's happening in terms of practice
  • PDF to your email address

47. Questions?

  • Join the conversation & access key resources
  • Continue the conversation started here today and access related resources on the CFCA website.

Audio transcript (edited)

ROBINSON: Good afternoon everyone and welcome to today's webinar, "Framing messages to engage fathers in the first 1000 days." My name is Elly Robinson and I'm Executive Manager of Practice Evidence and Engagement here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the lands on which we meet. In Melbourne, the traditional custodians are the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and to the elders from other communities who may be participating today.

In response to the mounting evidence of fathers' contribution to children's development and recognition of the importance of parenting partnerships in children's wellbeing, today's webinar aims to help service providers frame effective messages to engage fathers during their baby's crucial first years. Firstly, some house-keeping details. One of the core functions of the CFCA information exchange is to share knowledge, so I would like to invite everyone to submit questions via the chat box at any time during the webinar. We will respond to as many as your questions as we can at the end of the presentation.

We'd also like you to continue the conversation we begin here today. To facilitate this, we've set up a forum on our website where you can discuss the ideas and issues raised, submit additional questions for our presenters, and access related resources. We will send you a link to the forum at the end of today's presentation. As you leave the webinar, a short survey will open up in a new window and we'd really appreciate your feedback on that. Please remember that this webinar is being recorded and the audio, transcript, and slides will be made available on our website and YouTube channels soon.

It's now my pleasure to introduce today's presenters.

Dr Richard Fletcher is Associate Professor in the Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle. Richard's expertise includes the design and conduct of research into father's roles in families across diverse settings, including separated parents, new fathers, antenatal support, rough and tumble play with children, Aboriginal fathers, and fathers using the web.

Dr Jennifer St George is a senior lecturer in Family Studies at the University of Newcastle. Her current research investigates father-child rough and tumble play and its effects on child's social behaviour. Her other research projects explore related area of fathering, including father engagement in human services and paternal post-natal depression.

Dr Chris May has a long-standing interest in fathering and parenting partnerships and he has moved into academia after an extensive career in Paediatric Nursing and Midwifery. Chris facilitates antenatal classes for new dads and his current research focuses on the use of technology in the perinatal and early childhood period to enhance father-child attachment, mental health, and parenting partnership quality. Please join me now in giving Richard, Jennifer, and Chris a very warm virtual welcome. Thank you.

FLETCHER: Okay, thank you for that virtual warm welcome. We're bathing in it here. Good afternoon, I'm very pleased to be talking to you this afternoon about this important topic. Let me start by though by acknowledging the land that we're meeting on here and just a little trouble here with the slides advancing, yes. The country that we're meeting on and those of you in different places around Australia are meeting on, I pay my respects to the custodians of the land and the elders and their children. Craig Hammond is also a part of this presentation, but due to somebody passing in the family, he's unable to be with us. But we'll be talking about his work in this area.

We're also the three of us from the Fathers and Families research program talking on behalf of a very large group, who actually contribute to this work. We've been in this field for 20 years or more and in that time, a lot of people – other researchers, I.T support people, and many, many fathers and mothers – have been essential to this work. So we'd like you to remember that this is a big group we're speaking on behalf of. Of course, we acknowledge any errors or omissions are our own.

The starting questions we've got for you as service providers are to ask the messages that you would like to give fathers about their role and there might be many of them, of course, that you'd like to give. And when you're thinking about that, what we would ask is that you then think, well, which aspects of dads were you thinking of, when you framed that message in your mind, that you thought they would have or that they should have? Were you thinking about father's deficiencies? Were you thinking about specific groups of fathers like some of them that have been mentioned in the introductions; those particular fathers obviously – fathers are a variegated group and so we're trying to pitch our suggestions today to take account of the variety of contexts that you might be talking to fathers in.

And a question that we would suggest for the service as opposed to you as an individual is to assess how well you're delivering these messages. We've worked with services now over a long period and the reflection on how you're going with fathers is an important area that we think is under-utilised by services in general. Not that the services don't have enough to do, but we think if you're going to increase the engagement with fathers, then reviewing where you're up to would be a good idea. I want to tell you about a little project that we did in the Hunter Valley here; that was a poster project and the starting point was to say, we want to do a set of posters that – for the Aboriginal communities in this area that start off with "Our kids need dads who…" and then suggest an answer to that or a response.

We were prompted partly by young Aboriginal fathers that we were interviewing about how it was when they went to the hospital or to the AMS and their comments really struck us; that they said they saw lots of posters and messages about all the bad things that men might do; about abuse, about substances. And what they asked us well, where are the posters or where's the messages there about me and my baby, or me and my child, that are positive? That was one of the prompts for this project.

And Craig Hammond who most of you who know him, know him as Berky spent a whole year, really, talking to services about what they could do in terms of an image that they could present. That's a picture of Berky on the right there, holding his chin looking thoughtful. He's not here today but as you look at a couple of these posters, I'd like to read out some words that he's put together when he was involved in this project. So while he was doing that, taking ideas around and talking to community members about what words and what images could be presented in these posters, he said this; this is Berky talking.

"Being an Aboriginal man, living and working in the community, I see the images that are out there of us Aboriginal men. The brother in the park drinking, fighting with his wife. Our kids seeing their father being taken away by the police. These are the images that we see and the media portrays of us. When I ask the community how they felt about the negative issues, I couldn't stop them saying all these negative things. Not a lot of positive things to talk about they said. It did not feel good for me to hear these things and to think that these negative things are happening in many Aboriginal communities. When I asked them to come up with some positive things that the men are doing, they had to stop and think about it first, then they would answer – but they had to search hard for an answer." When he looked at the posters that were put together, this is his comment about how the posters he thought would work.

"We would like the posters to talk to our men, instead of everyone else telling them what they should do with their kids. We want the men to look at the posters and make their own decision on what they should do so they feel like it is their own decision. So they feel like – they can feel the emotion, the hurt, the sadness, the happiness and all the things that go with being an Indigenous father. If a father makes a decision from looking at the posters, if it's the right one or not, then he can't blame anyone for his decision and he feels like the posters are talking to him; not people judging him."

The points we take from this project are these; that the idea of starting with what the children need from their fathers is, we’ve found, one of the most effective ways of engaging fathers. So, if you're thinking about what messages you're going to deliver, if you start from the point of what the children need, and many of you will have considerable knowledge from your professional background about the needs of children and that's one of the areas that you could use to engage with fathers about what they need.

I'm not thinking so much of you giving them a lecture but your knowledge as we'll come to talk about a bit later; your knowledge of the research about fathers is an important element of how you frame your message. And the idea that it comes from the child, rather than the service or another parent I think is an important one. So, working in the neonatal intensive care unit for example, when we invited the fathers to come in to that unit, we put an imprint of the baby's foot on the invitation to indicate that it was the baby that was inviting you in, rather than the neonatologist or one of the nurses.

Berky's second point is particularly true of course for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fathers. I have been surprised here in the Hunter, a long way from the Northern Territory, how many times it comes up in discussion with Aboriginal men about the effect of the intervention on – that's happened in the Northern Territory on their own self-image here – when they feel observed by others as a father. So I think judgment is a key issue for Aboriginal fathers, but for many fathers I think there's an issue about whether you're going to be judged. So telling them to come to a program to make themselves into a good father is we'd say probably a waste of time.

The last point is and not so much Berky's but our own understanding, is that these – all the men that you see, all the fathers, however young they are, they will have already had many messages about their role, about fathers in our community. So whenever you think you are getting to them early, you're not actually the first to speak to them. Here for example is a front page of a booklet that was distributed widely as part of the early years learning framework around Australia.

There were a number of booklets; this one as you can see is about connecting with families and the idea of it, presumably, is to encourage early years services to think about how they connect with the families of the children that they're looking after. Now in that booklet, which is 20 pages long, there are 11 photos of adults. As you can see at a glance, the message here is not that fathers are terrible or that mothers are the only important people, but you can see by the number of photos and the way the photos are featuring adults, that fathers certainly are not at a key part of the picture.

Of course, most child care staff are female so some of this is reflecting that, but this booklet is specifically aimed at parents rather than staff and as you can see, it's a pretty obvious message. This is the main webpage for one of the larger non-government organisations in Australia, Mission Australia. And at a glance, in this case as well you can see that this has a message, this has a message; not that fathers are terrible, I don't think or that fathers shouldn't be involved, it's just that they're not important, they're not central to what's going on here.

Now I only went to this page recently and the reason I was going was because a Mission Australia organisation in one of the regions had asked us to come and do a workshop for their partners because they thought that their partners could do with some help to engage fathers. The partners thought it was important, the Mission Australia staff thought it was important to engage fathers and that's why we went to this page to look at what happened at Mission Australia. When we showed this slide at the workshop, of course, the Mission Australia staff were a little embarrassed and quite surprised because that wasn't their thinking about how their organisation approached fathers.

And I think that's an important point; this isn't about people who dislike fathers putting up this sort of imagery. It's not about people not liking or trying to sideline fathers. This is an invisibility problem that we're talking about, not a discrimination problem where people are deliberately trying to get dads out of the way. I think that means that for all services you might have a look at the unintended messages that you are giving, by the way you do your publicity, by the way you greet people, by the architecture design of your institutions, of your entrances. One of the assumptions we notice in the service sector is that if you say "parent" or "family", well of course you're including the fathers.

And we know from 20 years of work that that's completely wrong. That if you put out a letter to parents that the – when that arrives at whatever house it goes to – it won't be thought of as, "oh, this is something that's equally relevant to the father and the mother". It'll be assumed. That's why we have maternity services, that's why we have mothers’ clubs.

These things are not gender neutral, these ideas of parent and family. I think – so people accept, understand that that's generally going to be the mum. So if you want to invite fathers, if you want your message to get to the father, then you'll need to add something like, "dad, this means you". Or you don't have to do everything especially for fathers but you do have to indicate that you're talking to him.

And I think to underline that last point, to keep in mind how many times dads might have been told, it's mum who's responsible and, of course, there's been quite a bit of literature about how damning that is for the mothers to be blamed for everything from domestic violence, to their children not eating enough or eating too much. So we don't want to collude with that idea; that mothers are totally responsible. But we want to not collude with that idea by inviting the fathers and sending our messages to them.

I'd like to say something about the evidence on fatherhood before I hand over to Jennifer and Chris, and that is that as Elly mentioned in the introduction, there's now an enormous amount of evidence on fatherhood. We recently initiated a national organisation called the Australian Fatherhood Research Consortium, bringing together researchers who met in Melbourne earlier this year. Researchers who were interested in fathers as a topic. We couldn't have done that five years ago really, because there weren't enough people who were making it an important part of their research work.

This is a growing area but the evidence now, I think, is not an area that you can say is still tentative; we're pretty sure about a number of things now. As Elly mentioned, the idea that fathers have an impact on children's development is overwhelmingly supported and that isn't only about the negative things that fathers might do; it's also about the positive things starting from before birth. This idea of fathers involvement as essential to children's development is now clearly supported by the evidence. I'm just going to say something about the biological factors, because I think that's an important area that's overlooked.

We still I think as part of that idea that fathers aren't so relevant as mothers, I think – and the evidence we have now I should say, does not say of course that mothers aren't important. It doesn't say that fathers should replace mothers or are better than mothers. What it does say is that fathers are important for children's wellbeing and development right from birth. The idea of biological factors, though, is something that I think is a hangover from an earlier period; that mothers are obviously biologically connected to children through pregnancy and birth, and fathers, well, they're a social thing; they can come in and drop out whenever they like.

They're not really so connected, it's not a body thing, it's just whether they were told the right thing when they were kids and so they decide to help out.

I think that idea is certainly an idea that's been strong in Australia and other places. The evidence around the biology now is one of the ways we know that's not an accurate picture. This study, for example, looks at oxytocin which many of you would know is to do with mothers and birth but in this case, this is the aspect of oxytocin that we all have in our bodies. That is a feature of our approach to other people and how much we trust them. So you can get it now as a nasal spray on the web and in this experiment, they were looking at the effect of oxytocin levels on fathers.

So what we're looking at here is a biological aspect of fathering, not a social aspect. So they give fathers – they get fathers in a group – and they give them a nasal spray, get them to play with their toddlers for 15 minutes. The nasal spray of course is – some of them are placebo and some have the spray in them and they don't know which one, nor does the person handing them out. When they asked them to play with their children, they videotape it and then examine the tapes and those with oxytocin, encourage exploration more, and they were less hostile in their play; they had less hostile elements.

This suggests very strongly that there's a biological element to fathering. It's not just a social aspect and that's an important point in our understanding of how we move on to look at the evidence of fathers’ importance. Now I'm going to hand over to Jennifer StGeorge who will talk about the special aspects of fathers. Excuse us while we hand the microphone across.

STGEORGE: Thanks, Richard. So what messages about their role would you like to give to fathers? If we take a focus on their interactions with children in the first 1000 days, we would say that fathers' care and play actively promotes brain development. Fathers' care and play helps children explore their new world. Fathers' care and play builds strong connections between father and child and, of course, here we include men who are social fathers, father figures, men who spend interactive time with the child. So what do we need to do so we can formulate effective messages for and about dads?

We work from the position based on decades of empirical and intervention research; the father's active involvement from infancy through adolescence improves children's social competence, mental wellbeing, and learning. So there are two linked actions we can take: One is to foster a wider view of attachment and the second is to activate fathers' strengths, skills, and knowledge. Attachment theory as we know explains a child's intrinsic need for an emotional bond with a caregiver. This bond provides a secure base for children when in distress and facilitates children's exploration, play, and mastery of the environment when they are feeling safe and secure.

Both mother and father are important for children, yet their pathways to secure attachment relationships may be different. Evidence points to men as being the attachment figure who most of them provide the playfulness and stimulation that supports children's exploration. So this evidence has to led to a wider view of attachment, which proposes that attachment relationships are fostered by two equivalent components: secure attachment and secure exploration. When two parents are in the family, one may act as the highest ranking attachment figure in providing a secure base and a haven of safety in times of distress, and the other parent may act as the highest ranking attachment figure for providing exploration and excitement when times are favourable.

These are different roles but equally significant. Thus, there are likely two different pathways; care giving versus play, and different processes, sensitivity to distress versus stimulating exploratory play, which have different outcomes for children, and which can account for fathers' impact on children's development. In other words, dads’ sensitive and challenging play is an index or an indicator of the attachment relationship. So now, when practitioners and researchers want to assess the quality of father-child attachment, we should look for it when children are faced with psychological or physical challenges; for example, when the baby is cautious of a new toy or attempting to scale a climbing frame.

Signs that a child is secure in its exploration will be that he or she appears to be confident and enthusiastic. They'll concentrate and persist when thwarted and have confidence that the parent is available if needed and to support exploration, the father will be actively challenging the child's curiosity, their mastering motivation and coping capacity.

He will be sensitive and stimulating, limit setting and playful. So dad's sensitivity to the child's emotions and communications in this joint play keeps the attachment-exploration balance on the exploratory side.

In a ground-breaking longitudinal study, researchers found that fathers’ sensitive challenging play with their two year olds predicted the child's sense of security when they were a teenager while mother's play did not predict this outcome.

So, in other words, for these children, dad in the first 1000 days was experienced as a sensitive, trusted, and dependable companion when the child was faced with challenges and this had a long-term effect on the young adult psychological wellbeing for boys and girls. When we look deeper into fathers’ play, challenge, stimulation, playfulness, are strengths and skills of dads already. In comparison to mothers, in many types of studies researchers have observed that fathers are likely to challenge their children more, play faster, play more roughly or physically, are more humorous, playful, or teasing, and often are more active, directive, or assertive in play. So the second step we can take is to activate fathers' current strengths and skills. To assist practitioners, we've analysed the type of stimulating play that is typical of dads and benefits the child. So this play ranges from potentially stimulating activities, such as reading and story-telling, through sensory stimulation, to psychological stimulation and challenge.

For example, in a large U.S study, the more dads read, sang, and told stories measured when the child was 9 months old, the better the child's memory, vocabulary, and problem-solving when they were two [years old]. So, reading, singing, and story-telling made a difference, even taking into account mum's reading. So why might dad's reading, singing, or story telling benefit children? One study identified that fathers’ "who", "why", "what", "where" questions were the specific link to children's vocab and reasoning, not the amount of talking.

And of course these benefits are likely because children have to think more, talk more, to answer the questions. In addition, speech analysis shows that fathers’ vocal tone and speed is different to mothers and these accents or changes may alert of spark up the child. Another strength in many dads is their enjoyment of playful, physical interaction. In the early years, while mums hold babies a lot for breastfeeding and dressing, fathers are more likely to be holding babies just to hold them or to play with them. One study, for example, found dads toggle and twiggle infant's limbs a lot more than mums. Another study found that even when feeding their baby, dads engage in more social stimulation than mums.

Dads’ stimulation through massage or bathing, for example, has been found to improve babies heart rate and respiration rates as well as enhance the father-child connection. So, sensory and physical stimulation is one way that dads like to engage early with their infant and can be encouraged to do so. What then is the message about rough and tumble play between dad and child in the first 1000 days? Is this good for children, helping them to confidentially explore their world, or is it actually teaching them to fight? We analysed 13 studies of rough and tumble play across the world, which included more than 1,500 dads and children. There was no link between rough and tumble play and aggressive behaviour, but rough and tumble play was linked to great social skills.

In other study, high quality rough and tumble play when children were two to three years old, were strongly linked to attentiveness, high language skills, and low aggression when the children were about five. So how might rough and tumble play be supporting children's secure exploration of the world? We believe what's helping these children to be pro-social is the quality of the play; it's playful, it's happy, it's shared, and it's where dad helps the child control its emotions and actions so there is no damage to self or another.

In some, it may be that a father's playfulness is a magnet to his child and thus his importance increases even though he actually spends less time with the child than the mother. So a father's influence may be due in large part to the type of interaction he initiates, which then fosters a secure relationship, not his gender per say. We're not claiming that fathers’ play is unique; women also play in similar ways.

So, the message is about dads’ role in a child's first 1000 days can be constructed by 1) fostering a wider perspective on attachment relationships, and 2) by encouraging them to activate their strengths and know-how through sensitive and challenging play. I'll now pass you on to Chris.

MAY: Thank you, Jennifer. This part of the presentation is about parenting partnerships because this partnership is an important channel for father engagement. The parenting partnership is a new relationship that develops between parents during their transition to parenthood. It becomes the relationship that they share in the business of raising their children. And the parenting partnership is different to a couple's romantic relationship and, although these relationships are linked, it is clear that one can be working well when the other is struggling. When talking about parenting partnerships, people often raise the different types of parenting relationships that occur, including single parents.

This slide acknowledges a range of different types of parenting while aiming to capture the context in which most Australian children are in fact parented. According to AIFS data from 2010, 78 per cent of Australian 15 year olds were living under the same roof with their biological mum and dad. In the other 22 per cent we would expect to find children parented in a range of parenting partnerships, such as those including step parents, grandparents, LGBTIQ parents, foster and adopting parents. It is therefore apparent that the vast majority of families have parents or parenting figures working together to raise children in a parenting partnership.

It is also important to note that this is likely to be the case in families where there is a child with a disability, much more so than many people expect. And this is despite myths, such as that in the autism community where people often quote divorce and separation rates of up to 80 per cent. Evidence pointing to the importance of parenting partnerships for both children and parents is steadily increasing. We can expect that children coming from homes with higher quality parenting partnerships will often have above average ability to manage and regulate their emotions during social interactions. These children can also be expected to demonstrate higher levels of competence in making and sustaining positive relationships with family, peers and others.

Parents engaged in higher quality parenting partnerships are more likely to have stronger romantic relationships and that's an important protective factor. They are also more likely to believe that they are a capable parent who can have a positive influence on their child's development. A belief that can motivate them to try harder for longer to be the best parent that they can be. Parents in high quality parenting partnerships are also less likely to experience higher levels of parenting stress—sorry, parents in high quality partnerships are likely to experience lower levels of parenting stress. And parenting stress is important because parents who are highly stressed by parenting are less likely to cope, less likely to feel competent in their parenting role, less likely to employ effective parenting behaviours, and more likely to use harsh parenting practices.

In our research, we explored the relationship between parenting stress and parenting partnership quality in a group of highly stressed parents. Our aim was to compare the importance of parenting partnership qualities to a range of other factors that have been reported to predict high levels of parenting stress. We focused this research on parents of children with autism, because many studies have shown that these parents experience higher levels of parenting stress than almost all other parents. Much higher than parents with children with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, and almost as high as parents living in abusive relationships.

You can see that we managed to recruit 69 parenting couples and some mothers and fathers whose partners chose not to participate. To date this is the largest cohort of fathers of children with autism ever recruited in a study of parenting stress. All parents completed a range of surveys addressing factors outlined in the chart on this slide. We don't have time to go through all these today, but we measured these factors using validated reliable surveys. We also interviewed both mothers and fathers from six low stress and five high stress couples. The results showed that, as expected, parenting stress was high in the clinically risky range across this cohort of parents. We also found that the quality of their parenting partnership was a stronger predictor of parenting stress for both mothers and fathers than any other factor we measured, including severity of the child's autism, socio-economic position, sensitive competence in raising a child with autism, and beliefs about the availability and quality of support for parenting that they had from a range of formal and informal sources.

This indicates the importance of finding ways to help parents build and sustain strong parenting partnerships during highly stressful times, such as that they experience in their transition to parenthood. When asked about sources of support, we also found that both mothers and fathers rated their spousal support as more important to them than any of the other sources of support that we measured. This indicates how important it is to find ways to enhance and sustain the quality of support that parents give to each other during their transition to parenthood.

There was a wealth of information that came from the parent interviews and today I'm going to use a few quotations to exemplify what we learnt here. When talking about their parenting roles and responsibilities, the parents described a hierarchy in the way that they elected to assign authority in relation to the parenting of their child with autism. For example, one parent said, "I think when you disagree there is always someone that's got to be the right person in the situation. Someone whose decision you have to go with." Who do you think said this? Was this a mum or a dad? We found that parenting a child with autism influenced the way that parents distributed their parenting roles and responsibilities, and authority, and this was on the surface a very gendered decision. This was said by a mum.

We also found that parents valued the importance of sharing a sense of endeavour despite their differentiated roles. For example, one parent said, "If we didn't agree on what our goals were and have that understanding of roles, I don't think Toby would have the opportunity to develop." Toby wasn't his real name, by the way. Do you think that this was said by a mum or a dad? Although mothers took on a much more central role in parenting their child with autism, in almost all of the families that we interviewed, this did not diminish the importance of their parenting partnership. And this is important because we may not often see parenting partners in our interactions with families, but this should not make us forget the important role that the missing partner, usually the father, plays in that family that we're seeing. This was said by a dad.

We found a pervasive reference to the importance of the parenting partnership across the entire analysis wherein parents described the importance of believing that they work well together in the business of raising their child. And we've since described this as "co-parenting competence". One parent captured the importance of a sense of co-parenting competence when stating, "Having the knowledge yeah, you've got to have the knowledge how to do it. But if you don't have the teamwork then it’s not going to work very well." Any thought on whether this was said by a dad or a mum? This was said by a mum.

In our study, the parents described how their sense of parenting partnership competence helped them to cope with the diagnosis of their child's autism, that's in the past; manage the complexity of parenting their child with autism, that's today; and gave them a sense of being on a shared journey in which they developed and shared expectations for their child's and family's future.

When thinking about messaging mothers and fathers in the first 1000 days, we're mindful of the fact that this is when they are laying down the foundations on which their partnership will stand in the coming years. Messaging can therefore alert parents to the importance of their parenting partnership, encourage supportive behaviours. We found in some messaging that just telling dads and mums, to reminding them, or asking them to say, "You're doing a good job" to their partner, often encourages them to do it, acknowledge different roles and responsibilities, promote cooperation, communication and coordination, and inspire tolerance and appreciation in the hope of minimising conflict. Thank you for listening and I will now hand over the microphone to Richard.

FLETCHER: Thanks for that, Chris. I want to talk now just about a messaging process we've been involved in now for a few years here at the Centre, which has involved developing messages to send to fathers on their mobile phones. SMS4dads is the project, funded as you can see and supported by beyondblue and Movember. In this project, fathers can enrol from anywhere in Australia if their partner is pregnant, infants are less than three months old, and the messages are sent on a schedule say for roughly four messages a week to the dad's mobile phone. And being a message to a mobile phone, it's a short message, it's just in words, and it doesn't take too much out of their day to look at it.

Some of the messages have links, such as these, for example, and you can see that the language is from the baby. This is one of the three content areas that we focused on in these messages, that is the father's relationship, his attachment to the baby either before or after the birth. As Jennifer mentioned, we have a wider view of attachment than simply protection and safety, we want the dad to build this relationship with their baby. We also want them, of course, to build the partnership and we want to suggest things to fathers without being irritating or directive, and we encourage them to think about these things. One message, for example, as Chris mentioned, suggests that they talk to their partner and say they're doing a good job. One dad reported to us after the program that he tried that and he got the message at work, went home, said, "You're doing a terrific job." The wife, the mother, he said, stopped, looked at him and said, "That's not you talking, that's that program." And in summarising he said, "Well we had a bit of a laugh about it but, really, I do think she's doing a terrific job, I just probably wouldn't have said it without the prompt."

So, we're not thinking of teaching dads how to be a dad through these messages, these are more reminders. And we do have information about babies and their development, which the dads report to us when we interview them or when we survey them afterwards, that this was important to them, that they often - the mother might know this but for them to get the message themselves is an improvement on the situation. It helps them build that partnership because then they're also in the picture. And mothers tell us that the father’s involvement improved they saw when they got these messages.

As well though we are concerned about the fact that, although there is a recognition now that fathers also have postnatal depression and the last meta-analysis that we've seen put the rate at something like 10 per cent. So it's one in ten dads which is not as many as mothers but it's obviously not an insignificant number. So in the SMS4dads program every three weeks dads get a mood tracker, which is this screen when the click on the link, it asks them how they're going and then indicate by clicking one of those faces. If they indicate the top four, "awesome", "cool", "okay" or "shaky", then the message comes back on their screen that's appropriate for that level. Say if they're feeling shaky, it might say, "Maybe you need to talk to somebody, here's the link for beyondblue." If they click bad however, then the computer immediately sends a message to them to say that we're concerned and we'd like to talk to them, "Can we call you?" And if they say "yes", then the computer escalates that message to PANDA, perinatal anxiety distress helpline, the national line, who by agreement then call the father.

This is important we think, because fathers are often out of the picture. They go to the ultrasound and probably attend the birth, but apart from that they're not really in touch with many health services over this period. And so the chances of them telling somebody that they're not coping are not good. That's what this project is doing. We asked them about the messages they recalled after they've got messages, sometimes for 12 months, because the dropout rate we're pleased to see is very good, 15 per cent in the feasibility study with 520 dads. We've since then been running a randomised control trial, and so we've had now more than 1000 fathers enrol in this program.

These messages about the baby we think are quite important. You can see messages about partnership and about his recognition, thinking about her. Dads have mentioned that one of the reasons they like the messages is they do arrive during work time. They're not that distracting, they're quite brief. You don't have to look at them at that time, you don't have to do anything. But at work they've said it helps them keep in mind about what's happening at home with their baby.

Following on from this webinar what we would like you to do speaking on behalf of myself, Jennifer, Chris, and Berky, is that we'd like you to discuss the messages that you want to send to dads with others in your workplace. We'd like to see the discussion about dads more frequently, more intensely carried out in workplaces. So, we think even that would be a good step. We'd suggest that you keep in touch with the research that's emerging. We produce a free bulletin, the Fatherhood Research Bulletin, comes out every two months, it has summaries of research and little snippets about what's happening in terms of practice. And that's a free bulletin you can get delivered as a PDF to your email address. So that's one way you could keep up with the research. And we know from practitioners' discussions that when they feel like they've got a handle on the research they feel more confident talking to fathers or talking to mothers about the fathers. That helps.

And from our point of view this is not a quick fix so even though you have now maybe listened to this absolutely brilliant and stunning webinar, we'd say there's still more to learn. And we'd suggest that you enrol in one of the courses in the Masters of Family Studies or the diploma. We run two courses in particular as part of that that we think are relevant, which are online, so you can do from anywhere in Australia, working with fathers in vulnerable families and that whole issue around co-parenting and father-infant attachment.

The last thing we would urge you to do is to tell new dads and new mums about SMS4dads, send them to the website to register for that free program. When they register now at this stage it will be a randomised control trial. So, 50 per cent of them will get the full intervention and 50 per cent will get a light version of the intervention for six months before they're swapped over to the full. That's what we'd like to announce as your next project having heard this webinar. That's the front cover of the last glossy bulletin that you could have received if you were registered. And we invite you along with the AIFS staff to join the conversation. Thank you very much.



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The Commonwealth of Australia, represented by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), is not responsible for, and makes no representations in relation to, the accuracy of this transcript. AIFS does not accept any liability to any person for the content (or the use of such content) included in the transcript. The transcript may include or summarise views, standards or recommendations of third parties. The inclusion of such material is not an endorsement by AIFS of that material; nor does it indicate a commitment by AIFS to any particular course of action.

Related resources

Related resources

  • SMS4dads 
    SMS4dads is a project run by The University of Newcastle that provides new fathers with information and connections to online services through their mobile phones.
  • Refining the task of father-inclusive practice 
    This webinar presented the evidence on "what works" to engage fathers, and described recent initiatives using digital technology with dads.
  • Engaging Fathers - Evidence Review 
    This report from ARACY aims to set out the knowledge and implementation support that is mostly likely to be effective in changing practice to fully engage fathers in Family and Children services.
  • Fatherhood and mental illness: A review of key issues 
    This paper provides a broad overview of some of the key issues identified in the growing literature on paternal mental illness.
  • Engaging fathers in child and family services 
    This resource sheet provides ideas for practitioners and policy-makers about how to increase engagement of fathers in child and family services and programs.
  • Fathers 
    Resource sheet on recent research literature on the topic of fathers.

This webinar was presented in partnership with ARACY.


Dr Richard Fletcher is Associate Professor in the Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle. Richard’s expertise includes the design and conduct of research into fathers' role in families across diverse settings, including separated parents, new fathers, antenatal support, rough-and-tumble play with children, Aboriginal fathers and fathers using the web. Richard’s book The Dad Factor: How the Father-Baby Bond Helps a Child for Life (Finch 2011) has been translated into 5 languages. He is currently editor of the Fatherhood Research Bulletin.

Dr Jennifer StGeorge is a Senior Lecturer in Family Studies at the University of Newcastle. Her current research investigates father-child rough-and-tumble play and its effects on child social behaviour. Her other research projects explore related areas of fathering, including father engagement in human services, and paternal post-natal depression. Jennifer has a particular interest in using observational and qualitative methodologies to explore personal and developmental aspects of family life.

Dr Chris May has a long-standing interest in fathering and parenting partnerships, and he has moved into academia after an extensive career in paediatric nursing and midwifery. His PhD explored the importance of parenting partnership quality in families where a child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Chris facilitates antenatal classes for new dads, and his current research focuses on the use of technology in the perinatal and early childhood period to enhance father/child attachment, mental health, and parenting partnership quality.