Fathers' engagement boosts toddlers' cognitive skills

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Fathers who play with their babies when they are just a few months old contribute to their early development.

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Researchers found fathers who actively engage in play with their babies have a positive impact on their later cognitive development

In the study, published in the Infant Mental Health journal, researchers from Imperial College London, King’s College London, and Oxford University looked at how fathers interacted with their babies at three months of age and measured their development more than a year later.

They recorded parents interacting with their children, with mothers and fathers playing with their babies without toys, and then during a book-reading session at two years of age. Researchers then observed the videos, grading the fathers on their interactions.

At two-years-old, they scored the baby’s cognitive development using the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development – a series of measures, which includes recognising colours and shapes, to assess the development of children aged from one- to- 42 months.

After analysing data for 128 fathers, and accounting for factors such as their income and age, they found a link between the degree to which fathers engaged with their babies and how the children scored on the tests.

The findings also showed that children interacting with sensitive, calm and less anxious fathers during a book reading session at the age of two, had better cognitive development – including attention, problem-solving, language, and social skills.

The researchers are now working on a trial to help parents with their interactions with their children including how to give positive interactions when dealing with challenging behaviour.

Professor Paul Ramchandani from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, who led the research, said, ‘For those fathers who are more engaged it may be that there is a lot more positive stuff going on in their lives generally. That might be the reason for the link, but we can't be sure of that. All we can say is that there is a signal here, and it seems to be an important one.

‘The clear message for new fathers here is to get stuck in and play with your baby. Even when they're really young playing and interacting with them can have a positive effect.’

  • The study -'Father-child interactions at 3 months and 24 months: contributions to children’s cognitive development at 24 months’ - is published in the Infant Mental Health journal. Click here for the full study.
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