How a father’s involvement in the first 1000 days shapes a child

The first 1000 days of a child’s life, from conception to the age of two years old, provides a valuable opportunity for a father to get involved. During this formative time, the foundations are laid for emotional, intellectual, relational and physical development – and fathers have just as much of a role to play as mothers do.

The third webinar in a four-part series considering key issues around men, masculinities and fatherhood was hosted by Heartlines on 2 September 2020. The series is presented in partnership with the DSI-NRF Centre of Human Excellence and the National Research Foundation, and funded by the Oak Foundation.

Fatherhood is good for fathers, mothers and children

“Fatherhood is good for men because when a man becomes a father, his testosterone levels reduce, he becomes more loving, caring and supportive,” stated panellist Doctor Tawanda Makushe of the Human Sciences Research Council. In addition to this, men are more likely to stop indulging in risky behaviours such as drinking and promiscuous sexual behaviour upon becoming a father, Makushe added.

Where fathers have had their own adverse childhood experiences, they needed to realise that their experiences could affect their parenting, said panellist Mercy Manyema of DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development. “Speak about it, normalise seeking help and do not feel ashamed”, she said. “If this has been the cycle in the past, you are in a position to change the narrative”, Manyema urged. Makushe and Manyema both emphasised that a father’s mental health can significantly contribute to a mother’s overall wellbeing, which in turn, impacts the child.

Mothers need support from their partner from conception onwards as this helps regulate stress levels and also helps encourage healthy lifestyle choices that impact the baby’s development, said Makushe.

Studies show that a bond between caregiver and child affects the development of the region of the brain dealing with emotional expression and regulation, said Manyema. A healthy bond is conducive to a child who’s more secure, less anxious and able to self-regulate their emotions. Makushe also mentioned that a supportive father has shown to increase a girl child’s self-esteem later on in life and that in general behavioural problems would be less prevalent.

Fathers as primary carers due to necessity

Panellist Doctor Zoheb Khan’s research focuses on the 2% of men who are recipients of the child support grant. Many of these men had become caregivers due to necessity, and were forced to disregard the societal norms that dictate against men caring for children. While these men initially felt judged because their roles defied societal convention, over time this changed. As they acquired parenting skills, they proved to themselves that they were redefining, and fulfilling, the role of a man and father, Khan’s research showed.

There were a lot of negative perceptions about recipients of the child support grant in general, and also those who are men. Khan said that studies confirmed that the male recipients did not conform to the negative stereotypes in that the children in their care were healthy, and the grants wisely spent. Many men do not know that they may be eligible for the grant as it is promoted using a feminised narrative - and this may affect their involvement as primary caregivers.

How fathers can be more involved

“We require interventions at personal level, community level and at policy level. It cannot just be about the dad,” said Manyema. “We should move away from using terms such as fathers are ‘helping’ a mother look after your child. You’re a father, so it’s your responsibility”, said Makushe. Khan and Manyema also emphasised that being involved in childcare can be learnt by fathers and encouraged mothers to teach without judging.

Manyema pointed out that childcare and childbirth have in some cases been made to be seen as inferior, and this may result in a man feeling emasculated if he gets involved. A man can provide invaluable support to his partner following childbirth by encouraging her, preparing meals and doing the housework. This frees her up to focus on her healing and the child’s needs, said Manyema.

Makushe emphasised that the traditional idea of a father as a provider, while relevant, was too limited, and that fathers should be present in other ways. Khan identified a need for supporting and equipping parents with parenting skills, which would demonstrate to fathers how to be positively present.

How churches and community leaders can get involved

Community leaders and churches can start the dialogue around individual and societal perceptions of a father’s role in the first 1000 days of a child’s life. Safe spaces for men to seek assistance to deal with past trauma which may impact the way they father, may also be created.

If you would like to take active steps in promoting these conversations, we would like to suggest the following:

  • Start the conversation about the involvement of fathers in the birth of their children and what shapes them as fathers. Sharing the “Fatherhood in the first 1000 days video” on your social media platforms may be a good way to get the conversation started.
  • Equip yourself with resources that will help you facilitate meaningful engagement that leads to change. Visit Heartlines’ Fathers Matter website and sign up.
  • Join us for the last discussion in the webinar series as we continue to unpack key issues around fatherhood in South Africa with a wide range of experts in their respective fields.


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