Tips for making the most of your parental leave
1. Get involved and used to being hands on.
This actually applies to dads whether or not they are on parental leave. Many dads are actually scared about their own ability to interact with and care for a baby. You don’t become a dad and suddenly know how to care for a baby. It takes practice, learning to listen, interpret and respond to your baby’s needs. Their needs also change on a regular basis, so you need to keep involved to know how to keep responding to your child.
When my first child was born, I was fortunate enough to take 2 months off work, partially as secondary carer leave and the remainder as annual leave. I was a very hands on dad and quickly evolved from feeling like I didn’t know how to hold a baby, to being able to comfort my screaming child to sleep. It took time and practice. However upon returning to work, it only took one week for me to feel helpless and out of touch again. By that weekend, my son had already outgrown the position in my arms that he found so comfortable barely a week before. What’s more, he had become used to being settled by only his mother in my absence, so it took some reorientation for him to begin responding to me again. I even had to ask my wife for help in interacting with him better.
Many dad’s say things like ‘He/She only responds to Mum’ while handing their screaming child back to the mother. It may be true that the child isn’t responding to you, but this is likely to be a symptom that you are out of practice or that your baby has become used to only being settled by their mother. Don’t use this as an excuse to not be involved. Instead treat this as a sign that you need to get back in the game. Your baby might need more time with you to re-orientate themselves with you, as well as giving you time to readjust your caring techniques. You need to stay involved with your baby as they grow and develop, or the sad reality is that you do risk falling behind and out of touch with your child.
Furthermore, research has also shown that neurologically, there is no difference between men and women that makes women better at parenting - the amount of time spent with a child is the determining factor for developing neural pathways that help men and women become good parents. Put simply, fathers who spend as enough time with a baby will develop the same neurol capability to understand and respond to daily caregiving activities as well as the mother.
So if you find yourself in the situation where your baby only wants his or her mummy, roll your sleeves up and get back in the game. You may have to persevere with some initial resistance, but the outcome will be incredibly rewarding when you can make your child laugh, translate and respond to their cries without help and even sooth them to sleep in your arms! When my wife went back to work, we even found this situation reversed, and I have been able to help her through the reverse situation.
2. Keep prioritising your relationship with your partner. Don’t be under any pretence that having a baby will put a huge amount of stress on your relationship. Also don’t forget that your baby is the product of the love within your relationship. You were a team first, and to keep both of your sanity, you now need to be a team more than ever before. This means talking about the roles you can each play to best support each other, and continually reassessing and updating these roles as your child’s and partner’s needs change over time.
In the early weeks and months, you can best support your partner by taking charge of many of the household duties to allow for your partner to rest and focus on the baby. This means organising meals, cleaning dishes, washing clothes - all the domestic stuff. Can’t cook? Now’s the time to learn. Not sure whether to sort the washing by likes and darks or thicks and thins? Well there’s no time like the present. This is a stressful time for your partner and will only be made all the more stressful if she feels like she has to care for you and a newborn. This sounds ridiculous to even have to say, but sadly my wife and I have known of dads like this. One dad that we know of would refuse to lift a finger from his computer game controller to help look after his child as this was considered mum’s job. Even when his partner asked for help when it all became too overwhelming, his response was to belittle her saying ‘I thought you were stronger than that’. That’s not just being a bad father. That is emotionally abusing the mother. Dads- if this might be you, it is a sure way to end up losing both your partner and your children.
One principle that we have as a foundation for our relationship is a belief that to love the other person is to serve them first. This means looking out for their needs before our own. It is easy to be selfish when you are tired, which is why it has been even more important to live out this principle of serving each other all the more since our baby was born. Since dates are few and far between these days, we have had to find new ways to put our relationship first. We have had many move dates at home on the couch. Being at home, I have also been able to plan and prepare some exquisite meals washed down with some stunning wines, all prepared and eaten in the comfort our own home. We might have been eating a little later (it’s difficult to start cooking during bed and bath time), but having a child doesn’t mean that the romance has to be over.
Another aspect of putting your relationship first is to keep communicating and agreeing with each other about the ever changing needs of the baby and what roles each of you are taking on when you are at home. Does your role as the primary career include when your partner comes home from work? What about in the middle of the night? Does this change on weekends? Changing nappies and doing all the mundane and monotonous chores through the week can get incredibly tiresome. If you don’t define each other’s roles and set expectations with each other, it can be easy to either end up arguing about the simplest things like whose turn it is to change a nappy, or even worse, to hold grudges and build resentment by not talking about your frustrations. The challenges you face as primary carer as your baby nears their first birthday will be very different to the challenges your partners faced in your baby’s first few months of life, so you need to talk to each other about them. And just as your baby’s needs and overall development changes at an accelerated rate during their first year, each of your needs as parents will change frequently as well.
One final way you can serve your partner as the primary carer is to keep them in the know as to how to respond to your baby. The most important year in terms of your child’s brain development is the first year. They will go from being unable to move or communicate (other than that all too familiar cry of course) while your partner is primary carer, to being able to crawl or even take their first steps, and perhaps say (or sign) their first words while you get to take your parental leave. If your partner doesn’t get much face time during the week, they may find it difficult realising that they now have trouble connecting with or getting a response from the same child they reared from birth. Serving your partner and being an involved partner means playing an important role in helping your partner maintain a healthy and involved connection with your baby.
3. Learn to cook and be domesticated. If you’re going to embrace the ‘primary carer’ role, you really need to master this one. Learning to cook, clean, wash clothes, iron, vacuum and dust the whole house (not just the main thoroughfares) will significantly increase your ability to master point 3! Let’s face it - by taking parental leave, you are already pushing back against the social mould of traditional family roles, and for the better, so learning how to do your fair share of domestic duties shouldn’t be too big a stretch. And hey, if you are capable of learning how to care for a child, then you are more than capable at learning to master the oven. Besides, learning to cook from scratch will also give you the option of cooking healthy, fresh meals for your baby once they are old enough to switch to solids.
By taking on the cooking and shopping duties for our household during my parental leave, I was also able to plan ahead and organise simple but tasty meals with a single set of ingredients that could be jazzed up for us and simplified for our baby. Being organised meant that I could save time by preparing both meals together out of the same set of ingredients, while also minimising waste. A sweet potato, zucchini and bocconcini mash could be turned into a delicious vegetarian pizza for us (with the addition of a wholemeal pizza base), while other meals such as sweet potato (it really is a hit with babies!) and lentil patties with salad could be cooked the same way for both.
One final tip that I found incredibly useful in completing the domestic duties was to start using online grocery shopping. The convenience of being able to complete my order while our baby was asleep and have the groceries delivered to my home at a time that was most convenient for me was so much easier than the prospect of battling a tired, cranky baby in the aisle of a supermarket. I primarily used the Coles Online website (I used to work for them while completing my university degree) which remembers your prior orders, making it easier to reselect frequently purchased items the more you use it. If you also have a Taste.com account (which I used for recipe ideas), you can also select items you need and add them directly to your Coles online trolley for your next order.
4. Don’t do it alone. Find other mums and dads to learn from and journey with you. We were very fortunate that we had lots of friends all falling pregnant with either their first or second child around the same time we became pregnant with our first. This meant we had plenty of people we could call on for advice, organise play dates with and ultimately learn from and journey with through this new phase of life. We were able to collectively navigate through all the challenging stages together, learning from each other from things like settling techniques for babies that wouldn’t sleep, to learning about helpful features when searching for the right pram. We even had a facebook group set up to ask questions, organise events and play dates and even sharing interesting articles relating to babies and parenting for all to read and comment on. This certainly helped us to realise that we were not in this alone and break the isolation that can easily occur during this time. Sharing war stories is always fun and we have picked up many great tips along the way.
It is also easy to form bad habits while on parental leave, particularly if you experience a bad run with sleeping, teething or health issues for your child, or even yourself and your partner. During a stressful week, it can be tempting to not leave the house and park your child in front of the tv while you try to get some down time, or even just survive. Being in such a state could be symptomatic of needing other forms of help, in which case you should definitely speak to someone, even your doctor. If you are simply in a rut, remember that this first year is the most important year for your child’s growth and development, and you are currently the primary person responsible for their overall development. They need interaction with others as much as you do.
Many communities will have lots of great activities that you can attend that are designed to help the development of your child develop. Community libraries may host activities designed to introduce babies and toddlers to books, reading and even music. Community halls, centres or churches may have playgroups designed to introduce children to music and other interactions with young kids. If you live near a music or arts school such as a Conservatorium, they may also have classes for babies. Of course they may include a small fee. The advertising of such activities are still usually directed at mothers, and can be somewhat unknown to new dads. However a quick Google should help you find what some good options and can be a great way to help get you and your child out of the house and have a productive impact on your child’s development.
While it often felt easier just to stay indoors while on parental leave, getting outside and seeing the sun has a big impact on your health and mental well being. In fact, staying indoors all day may lead to anxiety and insomnia, and may even throw off your internal rhythms, increasing risk for obesity, diabetes, substance abuse, depression and other diseases. Spending as little as 20 minutes a day outside in green spaces can even have an enhancing effect to your level of physical and mental energy.
Getting out of the house each day also carries with it a sense of accomplishment when a small child is in tow, and is good for their own development. There are also lots of things to do with babies / toddlers that you don’t even realise exist when you don’t have children. Children’s playgrounds and local pools are fantastic as baby becomes more mobile (with heavy supervision of course!). Many malls and shopping centres have children’s play areas, while the simple picnic blanket on some nice green grass can be just as pleasant for a bub. Many public libraries and community centres also run programs for bubs that can be a great form of entertainment while also teaching your bub to interact with music as well as other kids.
5. Prioritise your baby’s routine over yours. I can’t blame a dad (or mum for that matter) for wanting to hold onto their previous life, routines and hobbies and wanting their baby to seamlessly integrate into their existing lives. Some parents try to take their kids to parties and rock concerts and try to continue doing everything they used to enjoy doing together before baby was born. If that works without any repercussions on sleep, development or behaviour (let alone hearing ability), then good luck. At the other end of the spectrum, some parents become so anxious to do anything that disrupts their baby’s routine that they become imprisoned to their perception of their baby’s ‘needs’, to the detriment of their own physical and mental health.
Both are extremes, but the key is to try to find the balance somewhere to the right of the middle where the baby’s needs are met in a way that is still sustainable for you as primary carer. Totally neglecting your own needs such as sleep, having adult conversations or even just getting outside to exercise and feel the sunshine, at the expense of putting your child’s reduces your own capacity to care for your child, which is ultimately your child’s biggest need- someone fit and able to care for them.
At the end of the day, caring for a happy baby is much easier, less stressful and more enjoyable than looking after a tired grumpy baby. The point is, don’t think that I baby will just sleep anywhere and tag along with whatever you want to do. Yes every kid is different (and some just have trouble taking day time naps), but if you are denying your bub what they need like the opportunity to sleep because you are trying to fit them into your schedule, then your parental leave is likely to be more challenging than it needs to be.
The Australian Government allows for parents who are married or in a de facto relationship to take Concurrent Leave of up to 8 weeks as part of their total unpaid leave entitlement. This leave can be taken up until the 12 months of the birth or placement of the child. If you can afford it, taking this time off together is invaluable for the father to learn all he needs to know from the mother before taking the reigns full time himself. Concurrent leave can act like a 'handover period' between parents, giving dad the chance to learn everything he needs to from his spouse / partner in order to take over the primary carer reigns, including sleep routines, learning tired signs, settling techniques and everything else he'll need to know before going it alone. You may also also want to use this time to travel or see family together before your partner returns to work.
6. Sleep. Your baby needs it. You need it. If your baby is depriving you sleep, then think of new ways to get it. Try tag teaming with your partner throughout the week. If they have returned to work, then they may need to sleep more through the night in the earlier days of the week and be able to do the midnight shift leading into and on the weekends. If you have family or friends that can mind your baby while you take an afternoon nap, then don’t feel bad about asking for help!
We have had some friends with babies that have been terrible sleepers, waking and wanting a feed literally every 40 minutes. It is not sustainable without help and takes a horrible toll, even on the mental health of the parent(s). Don’t be afraid to seek help from friends or even professional help. Your GP may also be able to refer you to organisations such as Tresillian, Karitane or Masada, which offer assistance with all forms of baby-related issues, including children that don’t sleep. Some services may also be partially or wholly covered by medicare and private health insurance. Tresillian as an example has a range of services from advice over the phone that anyone can access, to ‘residential services’ where you and your child essentially become a patient for the week, with a team of child and family health nurses, psychologists, social workers, paediatricians and psychiatrists on hand to work with you in overcoming various parenting issues including sleep and settling your baby. For us, this was a complete game changer after 3 months without proper sleep for all of us!
7. Take lots of photos and videos and back them up regularly! We are lucky to live in an age where we have a camera and a video recorder sitting in our pocket. Capturing those special memories is so easy to do and will be so valuable to you and your children in years to come. Between the two of us, my wife and I took more than 15,000 photos in our child’s first year. This number significantly dropped when my wife went back to work leaving me with the main camera duties to capture special moments while she was away. But it has meant a lot to my wife when I have been able to send her a photo of something cute our child has done or footage of him mastering something new. While I had originally thought that sending these images to her while at work would make her sad that she was missing out, it did the exact opposite. At the end of the 12 months, we were also able to sort through all our photos and make a picture book of all the special moments captured in that first year, which also made great gifts for the grandparents!
8. Take regular time out to look after your physical and mental health. It is often overlooked, but men also go through physical and neurological changes during their partner's pregnancy period which can have long term affects. Upon entering the parental leave period, a dad may already be feeling over-exhausted from months of sleepless nights while juggling a full time work commitment. They may be feeling higher levels of stress than usual, and are likely to have experienced both a decrease in fitness and an increase in weight since the pregnancy period began. Parental leave is a great opportunity for dads to focus on getting their health back on track.
According to the New York Times, fathers gain an average of 14lb (6.35kg) during the pregnancy period, with another source suggesting this could be as high as 30lb (13.62kg). The research contributed the weight gain to:
- eating out more frequently before the baby arrived (42%)
- increased availability of snacks around the house (41%)
- desire to make their partner feel better about their own weight (25%)
- being served larger portions during this period (20%).
Another reason men gain weight has been attributed to changes in cortisol, testosterone, and prolactin levels during and after their partner’s pregnancy, also synonymous with insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, a decrease in fat metabolism, and of course, weight gain.
In another study, 10,000 men were tracked over a 20 year period from adolescence to adulthood. These scientists found that dads gained weight even if they did not live with the newborn, gaining 3.3 pounds (1.5kg) in comparison to the 4.4 pounds (2kg) gained by dads living with their babies. Alternatively, men without daddy duties actually lost 1.4 pounds over the same time period.
Another form of physical and chemical changes that can be experienced by some fathers is known as 'couvade syndrome', or 'sympathetic pregnancy' and is rarely talked about in new dad circles. Symptoms of couvade syndrome other than weight gain includes altered hormone levels, morning nausea, disturbed sleep patterns that mirror the symptoms of the pregnant partner.
Being organised and making full use of your baby's nap times can help you get your eating and exercise routines under control. Simply getting outdoors each day to take baby for a walk will help get your physical and mental wellbeing back on track. You may struggle to fit in individual exercise activities like visits to your gym (although some do offer child minding services as part of their membership benefits), but you have a great opportunity to figure out a routine that works for you while still completing the household chores and general childcare duties each day.
Finding something that can help you relax and get into a good headspace can also help make dealing with the stress and monotony of looking after a baby more sustainable. During my parental leave, I fell in love with American football (NFL), which is televised on Mondays for Australian viewers. Monday therefore became my laundry and chores day, which I kept free religiously, making sure I had my recharge time and was in a good headspace for the week ahead. It was also something I could do while still being productive, being able to complete most of the big ticket household chores like washing, vacuuming and cleaning while having the football on in the background. I could also do this while looking after my son, all while my wife was at work so it didn’t compete with family time (i.e. without annoying my wife!).
Something else I was fortunate enough to do was to take my son for walks along the beach on almost a daily basis. Having a good walking path nearby that I could access without having to drive anywhere meant that I could get out and about, keep up a regular exercise routine and explore my local neighbourhood all at once. This was even more impactful to my headspace and overall well being than reserving Mondays to watch football, and I was able to rediscover my local area, which for a corporate dad, is actually a luxury in itself!
9. Keep a ‘Daddy Bag’ stocked and at the ready. This is the dad equivalent of a mother’s nappy bag, but using a bag that dad doesn’t feel embarrassed to take out in public! The daddy bag is stocked with all the key ingredients that you need to have with you whenever you walk out the door with your bub. Key items for packing include:
- Spare nappies / diapers
- Wet wipes and hand sanitiser
- Snack food e.g. mumm mumms, baby food
- Dummy / pacifier
- Spare change of clothes including socks, shoes and leggings (so they don’t rub their knees raw when crawling on hard surfaces)
- Milk bottle (with pre-measured formula if relevant)
- Water bottle
- Kid safe sunscreen
You may even want to keep several such bags packed so there is always one ready to grab when walking out the door. You may want to keep a Daddy Bag in the car, another in the pram and a third option in the cupboard to simply give you more options for getting out the door faster.
10. Travel while baby is young. This is a controversial one that will leave lots of parents saying, ‘That’s great for you, but we could never have done that with our child.’ That may be true, but many parents are also not game to try. Your baby might not even know if they will travel well until you let them give it a go! The point is, many people do make it work. My wife and I both went travelling overseas for 3 months with our 7 month old baby, using a combination of 8 weeks concurrent unpaid leave and annual leave. Over the 3 months, we visited family in the USA and went travelling both through the USA and onto Italy. Throughout his first year, we also went on numerous trips interstate and flew to Singapore for a work trip. We are not delusional- we are extremely lucky that our son has let us do this and realise that not all babies would respond so well! But I also think that he has learned to adapt to such regular travel by simply being exposed to the experience.
Travelling with a baby also enabled us to experience interactions with people in foreign cultures that we would never have encountered had we been travelling by ourselves. Particularly in Italy (the Sardinians just loved blonde haired, blue eyed babies!), people would literally stop us while walking to exclaim ‘Bambino, Bellissimo’ everywhere we went. We have gained so many memories, all while sharing the simple joy of watching our baby experience new food, cultures and continue learning and developing everywhere we went.
One thing that helped us to travel with a baby was to still keep a regular routine everywhere we went. We found that our baby would adjust to different time zones faster than we did (usually within 5 days) and returned to his same sleep routine as soon as he adjusted. In reality, this meant that we had a lot of down time where we weren’t able to sight see. We also timed long distance driving to coincide with nap times as much as possible to try to cover as much distance while our baby slept. We found that as long as out baby was well fed and received enough sleep each day, he was very accommodating to seeing the world!