What Do New Dads Want to Know? (spoiler alert: it’s how to soothe a fussy baby)

by John Hoffman

A Canadian research group surveyed 174 expectant and new dads.  One question they asked was what information dads were looking for.  I was a little surprised to see that the top answer was how to soothe a fussy baby.

I’ve done my share of soothing fussy babies and I’ve done lots of research and writing on the topic. Here’s my two cents’ worth. But first:

Uncle John’s Rules of Baby Soothing

Rule 1.  Nothing is foolproof. Even the most tried and true soothing methods don’t always work.

Rule. 2.  What works with one baby won’t necessarily work with others.

Rule 3. Babies can’t calm themselves. They sometimes fall asleep in the middle of crying.  But that’s more of a stress response than anything else. Babies need our help to feel soothed. Being soothed by us (over and over again) helps babies’ stress response systems to develop properly.

Rule 4. That stuff they say about checking to see if the baby needs to be changed is vastly overrated. Obviously babies do need to be changed. But don’t expect it to work like magic with a very fussy baby. Same thing goes for burping.

Here are some things that work sometimes. 

Nursing (feeding) is often the answer. You may know this. But I’d say two things.

Breastfeeding is not just about nutrition and hunger. It’s also about comfort, a deep down, primal kind of whole body comfort that is a baby’s favourite way of feeling better. Secondly, newborn babies need to nurse a lot, more often than some people think. Frequent nursing helps breastfeeding to work. So don’t be afraid that your baby is nursing too often, and don’t think you’re “giving in” by giving the baby to Mom to nurse.

Nursing problems can contribute to fussiness. If you think that might be the case, get help from someone who knows a lot about breastfeeding.

Bottle feeding? I don’t know much about it, so I can’t say if it comforts babies the way breastfeeding does. But one thing is s very clear. Babies are comforted by sucking. That’s why pacifiers often work. Some babies won’t take one and breastfeeding pundits worry that pacifiers can interfere with breastfeeding. That can be true, especially if the pacifier is started before breastfeeding is well established. However, I’ve known a number of well breastfed babies, including one of ours, who used pacifiers in their spare time. Babies can suck on your little finger too. One of mine used to suck on my wrist when I held him belly down along my forearm (sometimes called the football hold).

However, feeding is not always the answer. I’ve seen babies who acted like they wanted to nurse and then fussed and sputtered at the breast as if they hated it. This is a really, really good time for Dad to step in and try his luck.

Beyond feeding the chief soothing tools are physical contact and movement.  People have been using physical contact and movement to soothe babies for centuries. Try using a carrier. Walk around the house carrying the baby while listening to music. Jiggle her a little bit.  Try going outside. Sometimes a change of scenery or temperature seems to distract fussy babies a bit.

Skin-to-skin contact is especially good for really young infants. It has a proven biological impact. It’s not always an instant fix for a really fussy baby, but it’s worth a try. And it’s a good prevention strategy.

Speaking of which…. The ideal soothing tactic is to prevent your baby from getting into that ultra fussy state in the first place. If your baby is, say, very fussy each evening, start carrying her around in a carrier at 5:00 pm. This can sometimes prevent that ultra fussiness which is really hard to fix.

Swaddling has been used in a lot of cultures over the centuries. Some experts swear by it and others disapprove. Most of the concerns have to do with safety and they can be addressed through proper technique. Here’s a link to a Today’s Parent article that will show you how to do it.

Saying “Shhh, shhh, shhh, shhh” into your baby’s ear as you walk your baby around, including the well-known American pediatrician Harvey Karp. Sounds odd to me but some people say this works. It’s supposed to simulate the sound babies heard in the womb.  Just remember it’s also supposed to be soothing and not irritating (ie, too loud, to forceful, etc.).

Baby swings and car rides. Physical contact is really important for babies. So I’m not a huge fan of soothing techniques that involve putting babies in “containers.” Not as a first line strategy anyways. But desperate parents need all the tools and tricks they can get. Lots of guys have put their babies in the car and driven the streets, even in the middle of the night.

If you’ve tried every trick you can think of, take a break, and then go back to the beginning and try everything again. Something that didn’t work the first time might work the second time.

Beyond that, the sad truth is that there are times when nothing works. Some babies cry a lot in the early months. Research has shown this time and time again. There are various theories as to why this happens, but nobody really knows for sure.

So, if you have one of those babies it’s not your fault. Uncontrollable persistent crying should always be checked out by a doctor. But usually there’s nothing wrong medically.

Just do your best. Take breaks when you need it. I’m not a fan of leaving babies to cry, but if you’re at the end of your rope, put the baby down somewhere safe. Some parents have lost control and hurt their babies, which you obviously don’t want to do. What’s more, if you’re really riled up you’re not going to be at your soothing best.  Let some one else take over. And take turns with your partner. Watch for signs your partner is at the end of their rope.  Get other people to help you when possible. Persistent baby crying is really tough. But it always ends sooner or later.

What soothing techniques have worked for your family?

A Poll: Being a Dad

Dad Central Ontario is looking for some Dads to respond to the following polls:

Polls close Friday, Nov 27.  Thanks for your ideas.

Postpartum Depression: It’s a dad thing, too

by John Hoffman

When we hear the words postpartum depression (PPD), we usually think of mothers. But fathers get it too, maybe not as often as moms, but it happens. Some experts estimate that up to 10% of men experience some level of depression after the birth of a child. And sometimes maternal and paternal PPD are linked. One study found that between 25% and 50% of fathers with PPD have a partner who also has it. But I don’t want to just throw a bunch of stats at you. The point is, if you’re a new dad and you’re feeling depressed, or just not yourself, you’re not alone.

What I mostly want to do in this blog post is help bring paternal PPD out into the light a little bit.  The best way I can do that is to have one father tell his story.

Meet Billy, a father of two with another child on the way.  Here’s what he had to say about what he went through after the birth of his second child a year-and-a-half ago.

Billy’s Story

“The best way I could describe my mood in the first few months after the birth of our second child is that I felt withdrawn. I withdrew from my family, my friends, my work. It was like all of that was more than I was capable of dealing with. I remember one time when I went out for a bike ride. But it was more than a bike ride. It was like this big exit. I was thinking, ‘This is too much for me right now. I need to get outta here.’  I had those thoughts a lot of times during those few months.”

I don’t mean that I was always leaving the house. I wasn’t withdrawing from my kids, I was withdrawing from my wife. She was the one that took the brunt of my depression. I was very, very irritable. I don’t remember feeling guilty about wanting to withdraw so much. I feel guilty about it now, but at the time I felt put upon. I often wanted to go out with my friends or out for a night with co-workers. And when I couldn’t do those things I would lash out at my wife, because she was stopping me from doing what I wanted to do.

It wasn’t that she was asking too much of me. She needed my help so she would ask me to do things that needed to be done. That wasn’t what bothered me. I’ve always accepted those responsibilities. I enjoy doing things like changing diapers, bathing and caring for my children because they are really great bonding moments with your children.  But when I look back I realize that I wasn’t 100% capable of really feeling those warm moments when I was depressed.

At the time I didn’t think about that. I just wanted to withdraw. I never considered what I was doing to be wrong. I always thought that what was being put upon me was what was wrong. I was in denial for a long time.

But then I had a couple of turning point moments. One was when I started avoiding my neighbour. I have this neighbour who is the friendliest guy in the world. I always looked forward to talking to him as I was going to work in the morning. And all of a sudden I started going out the side door to avoid seeing him. And around the same time I can remember thinking, ‘My life sucks. My life isn’t good.’ I wasn’t seeing the joy in my family, my work and even my neighbours.  I realized that if I was feeling like this something was wrong. I wasn’t myself.

But the biggest turning point was probably when my wife said to me, ‘It’s not acceptable to behave the way you’re behaving. I think you should speak with somebody. You have some things going on inside, which I can’t help you with right now.’

So I arranged to speak to a counsellor. I was nervous to open up about it. Not everybody wants to hear a father with two beautiful boys complain about how his life sucks. But I knew he would understand. It was a huge relief to talk to him and I planned to talk to him more.  But then something happened. My wife’s PPD kicked in and that kind of took over. She’d had PPD after our first child and I knew I had to rise to the occasion. My wife didn’t put that on me. But it was like, ‘I’m feeling bad, but what she’s feeling is way worse.  So I need to be there for her.’ So I didn’t go back to the counsellor. But he also facilitates these twice a month dad meetups and I went to some of those and talked to him there a couple of times.

But knowing my wife really needed me to be there for her sort of gave me a sense of purpose. I feel good about myself when I’m helping out, like when I’m looking after the newborn. But after our second baby was born I felt like my role was sort of diminished. Here’s my wife looking after two kids now, and she’s doing awesome. And what am I doing? I go to work. I come home.  I have the kids for an hour before they go to bed. I didn’t feel like I was really contributing all that much.  But when my wife started to have her feelings I felt like I had purpose again. I wish I could have felt that way earlier earlier. I wish I could have recognized that I always had purpose – an important role to play. But I couldn’t see that because my thoughts were clouded.  Anyway, after I got my sense of purpose back I gradually began to come out of it. It was still hard, because of what my wife was going through.  But things gradually got better.

I don’t think what I went through was as bad as what some people go through. But I want people to know that fathers can get PPD. Fathers’ PPD is a pretty taboo subject. It’s important to bring it out in the open.”


Thanks Billy, for sharing your story with us.

If you want to learn more about postpartum depression in fathers here are some options. One is a video made by the Community Counselling Centre of Nipissing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmKKr6VlUts

Another is the website postpartummen: http://www.postpartummen.com/gethelp.htm

And here is an article that you may find helpful: When Dad Gets the Blues

Alex Nayanookeesic – A Father of Four Children at the Age of 26

by Gordon Mackenzie

On the day of a full moon, August 29, 2015, Alex and Laura welcomed into their lives baby Esme Kristiane Nayanookeesic, after waiting a long three week period of being overdue.  She weighed in at 9 lbs. 12 oz.  On the morning of the birth Laura went into labour at 2:00am, they then went to the local Nipigon hospital around 9:00am and were told to hurry to Thunder Bay Regional hospital over an hour’s drive away.  Less than 20 minutes after their arrival, Esme was born, and quickly.  Without delay Alex’s Granny, Pappa, and sister came for a visiIMG_20150830_225616t followed by Laura’s brother Calvin and his fiancée Joanna.

Esme came home the next day to be welcomed by Angelina (12), Justice (9) and little brother AJ (2) who had been looked after by their other Pappa and Gam.  What a reunion it was with AJ mistaking Esme for his 3 month old cousin!  This young family will be making adjustments at home from sleeping arrangements to feeding time.

Summer is coming to a close for Alex and he just received his lay-off from the bridge reconstruction project just west of town.  There are house repairs to take care of.  Angelina and Justice have returned to school.  Life will settle down into another state of normal.  AJ and Esme have to begin their relationship and Alex is keen to coordinate this loving bond.

There is life to live after the tragic loss of Jordan.  Although Esme will never completely fill the void, she will help soothe the family’s pain.

This is another chapter in the story of Alex and Laura.  To go the beginning, click here.

Daddy and Me: On the Move

by John Hoffman

Being a dad comes with lots of challenges. One of the more ordinary ones is helping kids find something good to do when they are bored.

With young children there will always be these times when “there’s nothing to do.” And while it’s perfectly fine – probably even good – for kids to be bored sometimes, stuff happen when children get bored. Stuff we don’t like. They bug each other. They bug us. They get into stuff they’re not supposed to get into. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

Our first child was not good at amusing himself when he was little. I knew other kids who would play their with toys on their own for ages. But not our guy. He always wanted us to play with him. He went through a long period where he was obsessed with stories. He wanted us to read books a alot. Even if it were looking at one of our animal picture books, he’d demand that we make up a story. His toy play was often about stories too. Often he’d grab a few of his stuffed toys and plastic animals, set them in from of me, and say, “Start za story.”

I had to “start” a lot of stories. One time I invented this game where we pretended to go camping in the extra bedroom. This was before he’d ever actually gone camping. The bed in our extra room was just a mattress on the floor. We used the covers for our tent and plastic dishes for our camping gear. He loved it and I loved how much he loved it. I didn’t mind most of the time. It kept Riley occupied. And I could tell that this kind of togetherness was good for our relationship. I always figured that sharing good times with my kids was sort of like depositing money in a bank account. Only this was a bank account of shared good memories. I also felt pretty sure that this kind of imaginative verbal play was good for his developing brain.

But man, sometimes it was hard to keep coming up with story lines and to keep the stories going. Sometimes I wished I could just reach into a bag of tricks and pull out something cool to do with him.

Well, I haven’t got a bag of tricks for you. But Ontario’s Best Start Resource Centre have just put out this this new booklet called Daddy and Me On the Move. It’s full of activity ideas for Dads to do with kids aged 0 – 6. The booklet also has useful information about child development and how little kids learn. Play, of course, is one of the prime ways young children learn.

Daddy and Me on The Move will soon be available in local parent child resource centres, Early Years Centres and health units in Ontario. There’s also an online version, which you can find here.
Print off your own copy, or bookmark it on your cellphone or tablet. The ideas in this booklet just might bail you out a few times when your child comes to you and says, “There’s nothing to do.”

Interested in understanding the ways father involvement impacts child development and how activities with children encourage bonding with dad?  Check out these webinars coming up:

Nov 25:http://en.beststart.org/node/232

Dec 7: http://en.beststart.org/node/233

Dec 8 (FR): http://en.beststart.org/node/234

Stress and Children’s Behaviour

by John Hoffman

Why do kids behave badly? Because they don’t know any better? Because their parents don’t set limits? Because some kids are born with a bit of devil in them?

I’ve got another reason for you. Stress.

I won’t claim that stress is always the cause of children’s misbehaviour. But it’s a bigger cause than many people think.  Think about your behaviour when you’re stressed out. If you’re anything like me you’re probably less patient, more cranky and you’re judgment isn’t as good.

Now apply that to a young child whose inner system for dealing with stress is not fully developed. It’s a recipe for “bad” behaviour and meltdowns. Mind you I don’t consider tantrums (meltdowns) to be “bad” behaviour. Tantrums are usually a stress response.

Dealing with stress burns up our energy – thinking energy, emotional energy, even physical energy. When children have to burn their energy coping with stress, they don’t have much energy left over to help them control their behaviour, deal with disappointments, wait their turn or even listen to Dad’s wise words of discipline.

Let me clarify what I mean by stress. We often think of stress as a response to a threat or very tough situation. Running away from an attacker. Getting fired from your job. Working hard to meet a tight deadline. Going through a divorce or the death of a loved one. Poverty.

Yes, those are all major stressors. But smaller, everyday experiences and situations can be stressful too, especially for kids. I’m talking about things like having to wait, being teased by your older brother, or having to go into a room full of people you don’t know. Two classic stressors for children are being tired and hungry. Matt Horseman*, a father of four, understands this . That’s why he and his wife always take food with them when they take their kids out. “We always pack granola bars when we go out as a family,” he says. “Sometimes one of the kids will be freaking out and if we can get a bit of food into them, they calm down a bit and they’re much better able to deal with whatever is bothering them.” Exactly. I saw this happen numerous times with my own kids when they were young.

Sometimes, Horseman’s oldest son, Jacob*, who has always been more emotionally reactive than his siblings, comes home from a sleepover just exhausted. If you have kids at the sleepover stage (perhaps “wakeover” is more accurate) you’ll know what Matt’s talking about. Anyway, when Jacob is that tired, well, he’s basically a mess. He’s cranky and snappy with his siblings and parents and all the teeny tiny stresses of normal family life become magnified. “If I can’t get Jacob to take a nap, I try to get him to take a break – like go up to his room and play with Lego for awhile,” says Horseman.

That’s not a punishment. That’s helping Jacob with his stress in two ways. It gets him away from all the little hassles that he’s not handling very well at the moment. Number two, playing quietly by himself gives Jacob some down time in an undemanding situation. That allows him to build his energy build back up so he can face the world again.  A key point here is that Jacob needs his dad’s (or mom’s) help with this. He hasn’t yet learned to recognize when he’s stressed out or low on energy and what he can do to reduce his stress and get his energy back. But with the kind of help his Dad is providing, he will learn eventually.

Like I said, stress is not the only cause of chidren’s misbehaviour. But, the next time you’re dealing with a “situation,” before you reach into your bag of discipline tricks try to tune into your child’s stress and help him or her deal with it.  If you deal with the stress first, your discipline will work better.

I’m not saying you should help your child avoid all possible stressors. No parent can do that. Besides, stress is part of life and kids need to experience some in order to learn how to manage it. Some kind of stress are actually good for us.

However, if you can get good at figuring out when your children are stressed and, then reducing the stress or helping them cope, you won’t have to do as much discipline. That’s because unstressed children have more energy to control themselves be patient, listen and do all the other positive things we’d like to see them too.

(*name changed to respect the privacy of his son)

Divorce Reform Can Meet the Best Interest of the Child . . . and Both Parents

by John Hoffman

Something has happened that I thought I’d never live to see. Fathers’ divorce rights activists and their opponents agreed on how to change divorce laws.

This happened in Minnesota. But it is truly revolutionary. If it happened there it could happen in Canada too.

Anyone who pays attention to efforts to reform divorce laws knows what can of worms that can be. Fathers’ groups have argued for years that too many men are cut out of the lives of their children because of a system and attitudes that are biased against fathers.  Their answer is that courts should presume that parenting time should be shared equally between mothers and fathers after divorce.

On the other hand, some women’s groups and legal professionals have fought this idea tooth and nail. They say that, in high conflict cases, shared parenting exposes children to harmful conflict and makes it easier for abusive men to keep harassing their ex-spouses.

Then, of course, there is the whole issue of what’s in a child’s best interests. Father’s groups say what’s best for kids is to have relationships with both of their parents. Others counter that living primarily with one parent is more stable and safe for children.

I’m over simplifying this debate. But I can’t get into all of it. The point is that the conflict between these camps has derailed some attempts to reform divorce laws in Canada. I’ve spoken to people who attended hearings of Canada’s Joint Senate and House of Commons Committee on Custody and Access in 1998. There was hostility, mistrust and even name-calling between opposing groups.  Those hearings proposed some changes, but they never came into law. That’s partly because politicians know that divorce reform is such a political hot potato.

In spite of this conflict, however, some improvements have been made in the way we do divorce. In fact, most divorce agreements and parenting plans are made outside of court.  And many parents agree to share parenting fairly equally. The legal process has changed in ways that help reduce, or at least, not add to, conflict between parents.  But still there was this sticking point about what fathers’ groups call a legal presumption of shared parenting, an idea that seems to scare some women’s groups half to death.

Well, Minnesota found a way to work it out using an approach called Convergent Facilitation. They actually got a diverse group of stakeholders, including some bitter adversaries, to agree on how to reform and improve divorce laws. Some of them wouldn’t even ride in the same elevator together. But they managed to agree on proposals that led to real, productive changes in Minnesota’s divorce laws.  These changes won’t solve all child custody and access problems. Nothing will. But still, these are innovative changes that Canadian provinces can learn from.

One great thing the Minnesotans did was set out some criteria for determining the best interests of the child. And they acknowledged that part of that was a good relationship with both parents whenever possible. Here’s direct quote from one clause of the new law: “The court shall consider that it is in the best interests of the child to promote the child’s healthy growth and development through safe, stable, nurturing relationships between a child and both parents”  (italics mine).

Even though that’s a statement that almost everyone would agree on, it has been seemingly impossible to get it into a divorce law. And that’s largely because of the history of hostility and mistrust between opposing sides in the divorce debate.

The new law even mentions a presumption of shared parenting. That might make it sound like the fathers’ groups won. Except, they didn’t “win.” It’s just that they and their opponents were able to agree on principles they could all live with. That includes protecting women and children from abusive men, putting the needs of children ahead of the rights of parents and more.

I don’t have room to go into all the law’s details.  I mostly want to spread the word that it is possible to get opponents to agree on helpful changes to divorce laws.

Unfortunately almost nobody I’ve talked to in Canada has heard about these arguably historic changes in Minnesota’s divorce laws,

Well, you’re hearing about it now. If you are interested in divorce reform I urge you to learn more about what they did in Minnesota and how they did it. And spread the word. You can read more about the process here and one lawyer’s opinion of what the changes mean here.


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