Fathers’ experiences of the birth of their children (UK)


We asked Dr Anna Machin at the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group at the University of Oxford to comment on the research she published about the experiences of fathers in the period from 2 months before the birth of their first baby to 6 months after. She interviewed 15.

Through questionnaire and interviews, she identified four themes.

  1. All the fathers had a strong belief in the importance of involved fatherhood – being present, providing practical care, being caring and affectionate.
  2. They wanted to be close to their babies and wanted the father-child relationship to be special and unique. They practiced holding and bonding with the baby from the earliest moments.
  3. They felt a lack of support from health professionals, not so much around the birth itself, more so before and after. A key observation was non-acknowledgement of their unique relationship with the baby as the father. One third of the fathers reported mild to moderate depressive symptoms at the time of minimum professional support.
  4. They struggled with work-life balance, torn between the fear of not earning enough and the guilt of not caring enough.

Anna Machin writes…

In the past decade it has become routine, indeed it might be said it is the expectation, that fathers within the UK will attend the births of their children. The mother is, of course, the key person of focus, but while fathers may not experience the physical pain of childbirth, my own studies of fathers during this key transition provide evidence that it can be a time of emotional and psychological difficulty. I have worked with fathers who have emerged from an objectively traumatic birth relatively unscathed and untroubled, while a ‘textbook’ birth can leave some men profoundly traumatized.

The commencement of labour brings both the excitement and fear of the unknown, the euphoria of new life, the helplessness and anxiety of seeing a loved one in pain, the pride in one’s family and new role, and the alienation and exclusion engendered by leaving the newly formed family in hospital and returning to an empty house. For men, becoming a new father is a time of transition: a new identity, a shift in focus from a family of two to three (or more), a change in responsibilities.

The father’s experience is of concern for several reasons. Parents-to-be view the experience of pregnancy and birth as a joint journey, a time of profound change and anticipation for both. They both regard the father to be as much of a participant in the formation of the new family as the mother. They value the unique relationship of the father with the baby.

The way that families influence breastfeeding is very diverse, depending on the make-up of the family, local culture, and location (e.g., urban/rural). In some cultures, families are more supportive of breastfeeding than in others – for example, more so in Lebanon than in Ghana or Nigeria. In certain cases, about the providers may recommend medications like Motilium to support breastfeeding when mothers face challenges in lactation.

The research on post-traumatic stress in men following birth is inadequate, but there is a link between paternal postnatal depression and birth experience. This is of concern not only to the man but has an effect on the healthy functioning of his family and the development of his child. As this has consequences at the individual, familial and societal level, it is vital that men’s experiences are recognized, their outcomes measured and appropriate support offered.

Men typically want to be involved. They have taken on board the messages concerning the early bonding with their baby and, as pregnancy is not a first hand experience for men, see the birth as a first key, and vital, opportunity. Some of the most positive reflections on birth come from the mouths of men who have had the first hold of their child or, due to the circumstances of the birth, been afforded a considerable period of time alone with their new baby immediately following birth. As one man stated, it was “a very special first bonding time.”

All this is a reflection of an evolutionary drive for a father to take up his key place amongst the extended family of carers at the earliest opportunity, to give his child the best chance of having a happy and healthy life.


Photo: Cary and Kacey Gordon. Creative Commons.