Right up until a new baby is born, and even beyond, the main focus of family and friends is usually on the baby and mother - after all, she has just looked after the baby for nine months and gone through the ordeal of childbirth. But this attention of mum and baby can leave many new dads feeling a little isolated and unsure of how they fit into the picture. Yet dads have a crucial role to play in the healthy development of their new baby, right from the first moments, as well as in creating a happy and healthy family environment. Your baby will very quickly recognise you and your partner by your smell and your voices, and as early as at two weeks' old she may be able to recognise your faces, so these early weeks are an important time for establishing the close natural connection that you have with her. It's also the case that the early weeks can set the tone for the coming years, so if you intend to be an active and involved parent then it's made all the easier if you start early.
Preparation, experience and confidence
If you haven't had much experience with babies in the past then you might lack the confidence that you can care for your baby well. But remember that while many men (and women) assume that women are naturally better parents, both you and your partner will be feeling your way as new parents and learning on the job and there's nothing to say you can't be every bit as capable with your baby as your partner.
Your partner may well have been more focused on the baby during pregnancy and so have read up a lot about looking after a newborn, but you can also read up on the what your baby needs and how your baby changes as she grows (going to ante-natal classes with your partner is a good start for picking up baby-care basics). You need to know how to keep your baby healthy and safe so make sure you know how to hold, change, dress, feed and bathe her, as well as how to put her down to sleep safely. Make sure you get to grips with any baby paraphernalia, such as steriliser, thermometer, special bedding etc. right away, so you don't always have to defer to your partner for instructions.
While reading up is important, there's no substitute for actually spending time with your baby and getting to know her and her individual needs, and there's plenty that you can do to look after the baby yourself. Here it's important that you don't just do all the nice things, like cuddling and playing with your baby, but that you also roll up your sleeves and get stuck in with changing those nappies, wiping up sick and spit-up and settling your crying baby - night and day. Of course it's also important that you do spend plenty of time cuddling and bonding with your baby, carrying her, lowering your face close to her and talking to her gently, as well as learning how to interpret her cries and meet those needs which you can.
Remember too that your baby's needs, abilities, sleeping and feeding patterns and so on, will change all the time, particularly quickly during these first twelve months, so you need to stay involved to stay confident and competent. If you do have to spend chunks of time away from your baby then make sure you ask your partner for any important updates, such as changes in how she likes to be held or when she sleeps etc.
If you and your partner are bottle feeding then it will be easy for you to feel part of the feeding team, you can give your baby feeds whenever you are home, help out with the cleaning, sterilising and preparation of bottles and take on some of the night feeds to give your partner chance to get a few hours' sleep together.
If your partner is breastfeeding you might think that there's not much you can do, but in fact, studies have shown that partners often play a crucial role in successful breastfeeding. Most important of all is the emotional support you can give your partner in letting her know that you think it's wonderful that she's giving your baby the best start in life and in encouraging her to keep going if things get tough. Some women find it difficult to breastfeed in public and may appreciate you supporting them in that. Secondly you can physically support her breastfeeding by freeing up some of her time (by taking on more of the other household tasks yourself, for example), by making sure that she's getting enough rest (which is important to keep up her milk flow and keep her healthy) and by making sure that there is healthy and appetising food to hand, including healthy snacks to keep her strength up.
Those pesky chores
If your partner is finding the first couple of weeks tough, you might be unsure of how you can best muck in, in which case ask, don't wait to be asked. It's also important, though, that you take the initiative yourself, so it feels more like teamwork than you 'helping' your partner. It's a fairly safe bet that you can play an important role by doing more of the household chores, such as cooking, cleaning, washing and buying the groceries, so that your partner has more time to look after the baby, or simply rest. While these jobs aren't directly looking after the baby and certainly aren't the most exciting, they are all important parts of the teamwork that needs to be done. A common cause of disagreements between couples is differing standards of tidiness and cleanliness - if this affects you then try to sit down together and agree on what your household priorities are and set some broad standards you both want to meet.
Keeping up good communication with your partner is vital towards both of you feeling like you're working as a team, understanding each other's needs (yes, you have them too!), tackling the never-ending 'to-do' list efficiently, making time for each other and both getting quality, enjoyable time with your new baby, as well as a half-decent amount of sleep. Communicating effectively though can be rather difficult at a time when you're both battling lack of sleep and trying to get to grips with the new realities of parenthood: When you're over-tired and feeling under pressure it's easy for both of you to slip into being grumpy, tetchy and snappy. If you find that you and your partner aren't communicating that well in these first few weeks of parenthood then make a concerted effort to take time to talk to one another and listen to each other's point of view and preoccupations, and try to be as open as you can. You might find these ideas for developing active listening helpful.
More than anything else, take time to be with your baby and enjoy her in these first few weeks, these early days may not be the easiest, but you'll be amazed how quickly they are over, so don't miss out!