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More Dads Should Play a Role in Prenatal Health

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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A man holding young child

I celebrated my first Father’s Day as a dad in 2013. My daughter was 5 months old, and like many fathers in the first year, I was a mix of exhausted, overjoyed, and at least occasionally terrified.

I had to learn a lot about pregnancy and infancy, from the basics of nutrition during pregnancy to some of the unexpected health issues that a child might face, in a relatively short time.

When my wife and I were expecting our first child, I quickly found that a lot of the educational resources, such as the mobile apps I downloaded, were designed almost exclusively for the pregnant mother and didn’t seem to consider the possibility that an expectant father might be the user of the app. This is a missed opportunity to engage dads more effectively.

But this is bigger than just pregnancy apps. The entire prenatal care landscape is crafted for moms. It’s obvious why. Pregnancy outcomes in the United States continue to rank among the worst in the developed world, with 5.8 infant deaths per 1,000 live births and 17.2 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

This is why improving pregnancy outcomes is a top public health priority. But we cannot forget that men – and partners of any gender to a pregnant person – play a very important role in improving health for all.

In his book, “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked,” Paul Raeburn urges readers to consider what changes occur in men when they are “expecting,” how fathers affect their children’s language development, and the risks and rewards of being an older-than-average father at the time the child is born. He confirms not just that fathers matter, but they matter a lot.

What’s more, researchers have found that fathers who were involved with their partners during pregnancy reduced the risk that the children would die in the first year of life. Is there any stronger motivator to a new parent?

But despite the decades of research that shows men can improve pregnancy outcomes, many men continue to feel invisible or unwelcome. Traditional maternal-child health promotion tends to focus exclusively on pregnant women, almost entirely leaving men outside of a defined role in prenatal care, pregnancy outcomes and overall family health.

But do men want to be involved in prenatal health? My research identified men’s perceived barriers to being involved in prenatal health, such as time constraints, financial burdens and an unclear role.

Despite these very real blockades for male partners from all walks of life, research shows men do believe it is important to be involved in pregnancy health – particularly planning for the financial changes that come with a child.

There are two key things to consider in order to get more men involved. The first is to think about the kind of information that fathers might be looking for, as well as how to adjust content to make it relevant to men.

For example, information about breastfeeding might go beyond the health benefits of breastfeeding to highlight what men can do to support the mother and baby while breastfeeding. The second is to consider design and style.

If most content focused on mothers tends to have a similar visual style – such as smiling pregnant women or babies – then information developed specifically for fathers might take a different approach to make it clear that the content was developed with fathers in mind from the start.

These days, fathers are used to getting personalized content on every topic from the serious to the entertaining to the mundane. We need to better engage fathers around prenatal health – with customized information and tools that might live on their phones. It is one of the best ways to foster engaged fathers that can help improve the health of mothers and babies. Not just on Father’s Day, but every day.

Mike Mackert is a professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations and in the Department of Population Health in the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in USA Today, Detroit Free Press, and The Arizona Republic, among others.

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