UNICEF’s Early Childhood Development campaign needs to work with maternal and newborn health services to reach fathers


Comment piece, Duncan Fisher OBE, co-founder, The Family Initiative

UNICEF has launched a global campaign to focus attention on the importance of early childhood development (ECD). Pia Britto, UNICEF’s Chief of ECD put it thus: “good parenting for young children living in highly stressful conditions like conflict or extreme poverty can provide a buffer, helping them to develop fully, despite adversity”. Sensitive parenting and strong family relationships help the child’s brain to develop during the first 1000 days of life, laying a foundation for his/her future cognitive and social abilities, health and potential to earn income.

The campaign has a strong focus on the contribution of fathers to ECD, launching a SuperDads campaign around Fathers’ Day 2017. Over 80 countries marked Fathers’ Day as part of this campaign, promoting stories about fatherhood not only from celebrities, but from fathers raising children in very difficult circumstances, such as refugee camps.

The ECD campaign features an 87-minute film, The Beginning of Life, which aims to “energize the conversation around ECD and complement the launch of a Lancet special series on ECD. (A request to view the film can be made here.) The film is divided into sections where experts talk and parent-child interactions are shown. The film is available in 7 languages (Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, English, French, Portugese and Spanish) and with subtitles in 22 languages. The film covers families

The film presents much diversity – high and low income families, disabilities and a same sex family. It also presents a good mix of motherhood and fatherhood and represents father-child interactions strongly. Some highlights:

  • Two fathers are depicted as primary carers, one in a wealthy country and one in a poor community.
  • An expert refers to the evidence that involved fatherhood increases breastfeeding, something that is very rarely said.
  • Sharing responsibilities – a partnership in parenting – is strongly presented. An expert argues it is wrong to say men just “help” with childcare. There is a brief discussion about how some mothers can obstruct fathers’ involvement because the mothers think there is only one best way to parent.
  • The importance of the relationship between parents is described and how it needs investment.
  • It takes a village to raise a child, not just a mother.
  • Simply being genuinely present to a child is important for both mothers and fathers.
  • Grandfathers and grandmothers are also important carers and can contribute much to ECD.

The best opportunity to engage fathers and communicate these important messages is when a baby is born. This is the moment when fathers are most accessible – they attend appointments (or can easily be invited to, in all cultures) – and also when they are most interested to access new information. The same is true of mothers, but mothers continue to connect with services and networks after the birth – fathers are very much less likely to. So once the birth is over, the task of communicating with fathers becomes much more difficult and expensive.

Furthermore, creating the bond between fathers and their infants needs to start immediately after the birth. Physical closeness triggers hormonal and neurobiological changes in men that draw them further in. Delaying this process opens up opportunities for men to drift into permanent distance from their children, a feature of patriarchy.

If UNICEF wants to engage with fathers with least cost and maximum efficiency, then it needs to engage with maternal health services and reach the audience in partnership.

The good news is that maternal and newborn health services also need to communicate with fathers. The messages they need to communicate around health are extremely compatible with the messages of ECD. For example, promoting breastfeeding to fathers needs to combine messages about the importance of breastfeeding to health and about the many opportunities fathers have to bond with their baby other than feeding. A single programme of engagement would simultaneously and seamlessly communicate the core messages from both perspectives.

We propose collaborative projects between maternal health services and ECD, thereby sharing the cost of vital communications to family about child health and early child development.

Photo: TreeAid. Creative Commons.