Birth of a Father

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Boot Camp for Dads

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Today, Michael Barrette is a laid-back, seasoned father, but this wasn't always the case. Before his son Brendan was born in August 1999, Barrette reluctantly "enlisted" in Boot Camp for New Dads to learn the ropes.

A program that brings expectant fathers together with recent dads and their newborns to learn from one another, Boot Camp for New Dads is now in more than 120 communities in 36 states. Graduates -- the "veteran" dads -- range in age from 16 to 60. Recruits, or "rookies," come from all income brackets and all ethnic backgrounds. Some are unemployed and others are corporate attorneys.

"I didn't think I would learn much because I thought I was well-prepared for fatherhood," Barrette recalls. Because he was 9 when his younger brother was born, Barrette had some experience changing diapers, but a man's role in the family has changed dramatically in the more than 25 years since then. Back then, fathers didn't even witness birth because they weren't allowed in the birth room -- whereas today they are considered equal partners in the process, and are increasingly expected to behave as such.

"When I found myself in a room full of guys talking about what I was feeling, it was a profound experience," says Barrette, a musician whose group included a physicist, a couple of police officers, and a truck driver.

"It was a diverse group of guys all expressing the same fears and hopes," he says. "Everyone is concerned about creating a bond with their child."

Facing the Fear Factor

In a three-hour session, Barrette -- along with other rookie dads, veteran dads, and a coach -- discussed the potential pitfalls of fatherhood, such as the strain a new baby can put on a marriage and the baby blues their partner might suffer following delivery. They also learned some important "how-tos" -- such as how to swaddle, diaper, feed, and even hold a baby. Depending on the locale, Boot Camp typically consists of one or two initial sessions and ongoing support through monthly group meetings of new fathers.

"It's reassuring to hold and comfort a baby," says Barrette. "The fear factor melts away when you get the baby in your arms."

The idea for Boot Camp was sired about 12 years ago, when founder Greg Bishop, father of four and sibling to 12, noticed that most men just didn't seem to enjoy their babies.

"Virtually every man out there wants to do the job, but it's tough transition from 'guy' to 'father' and there are very few sources of information," says Bishop, a Boot Camp coach at the Irvine Medical Center in Irvine, Calif.

But that's changing. Boot Camp for New Dads has received a grant to work with PROJECT JUMPSTART to join with healthcare providers and community organizations to develop ways to reach, orient, and equip men to meet the challenges of fatherhood.

For example, in some hospitals, nurses are taking new dads to the nursery and walking them through the process of changing diapers and bathing the new infant, while the moms recuperate from delivery.

"If a lot of obstetric nurses did that across the country, men would be much more comfortable with newborns," Bishop says.

What to Expect When You Are Expecting

With its own type of basic training, Boot Camp for New Dads helps expectant fathers get ready for dadhood.

"Classes are a combination of rookies and veterans, with the veterans doing most of the talking," Bishop says. "The real experts on new fathers are the new fathers, and having them relay their experience works best.

"Moms usually sign the dads up, and they come before the baby is born -- usually in the last trimester -- then they come back with baby at two months as veterans," he adds.

That's the path Barrette followed.

"It was cool to revisit everything after having had the child and to be able to share and discuss what a couple experiences postpartum and how the nature of the relationship changes after the baby is born," Barrette tells WebMD.

"The biggest issue is that relationships take a big hit when that baby comes along," Bishop says.

In fact, 20% of marriages decline seriously when the baby is born, he says; 30% decline somewhat, 30% stay the same, and 20% improve.

"Mom and dad are a team who take care of the baby, and it's tough when that relationship is in trouble," he says.

Five years ago, Chuck Ault, the coordinator of fatherhood programs at Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver and a national Boot Camp trainer, replicated Boot Camp in Denver.

"If a guy can go in much more confident in his ability to care for the baby, he jumps in from the beginning and establishes positive patterns and bonds with the baby," Ault says.

"Unlike other programs, [Boot Camp] doesn't target fathers in a specific situation," Ault says. "It's open to all fathers, and all fathers can benefit from the workshop."

Here's how it works: Expectant fathers -- a.k.a "rookie dads" -- get together with veteran dads about a month before the baby is born. The veteran dads bring their 2- to 3-month-olds for a show-and-tell of sorts, all facilitated by Ault.

"They all sit in a circle and find out what the rookie dad's concerns are, then we hear initial advice from veteran dads," he says. Some topics include "the gatekeeper phenomena," where the new mom tends to overcare for the baby and unknowingly pushes the dad away.

"It's easy enough if you are not feeling confident to allow that to happen, and that establishes a pattern, but at Boot Camp we help new dads establish a different pattern from the beginning and share responsibility for new baby," says Ault.

That new pattern begins with pregnancy, and is intended to take the dads through labor and delivery and all the way through childhood.

"At the hospital, dads need to be aware of everything that could be a distraction," Ault says. "For example, let's say the new mom changes her mind about using drugs to cope with labor pain: The dad must advocate for her with the staff."

And after the new parents get home, when everybody wants to visit and "help"? "The dad should take charge of directing visitors in terms of what is most helpful and what is not," he says.

After the initial circle chat, the class breaks into small groups of one veteran and several rookies to learn how to change diapers, feed a baby, and comb his or her hair, Ault says. "Often a pretty good percentage of men in class will have never held a baby," he says.

Later, everyone gets back together to discuss such topics as baby blues, breastfeeding support, basic safety such as baby-proofing the home, and some instruction in shaken baby prevention.

Shaken baby syndrome is a severe form of head injury caused by the rebound of the baby's brain in its skull when shaken. It is almost always caused when an angry parent or caregiver shakes a baby to punish or quiet the child. About 70% of time, that injury takes place at the hands of men, says Ault.

We Want You

Just like the U.S. Army has recruiting outfits in all 50 states, Boot Camp for New Dads recruits everywhere expectant fathers hang out, including hospitals, clinics, schools, churches, and military bases across the U.S. The cost is nominal -- anything from free to $20, depending on the specific program.

"We try to reach them as they become fathers," Ault says. "We are connected with obstetrician practices and other classes the hospital may offer for new parents -- including hospital tours."

That early contact is important, because if men's first experience as a father is bad -- or completely missing -- they're more likely to go AWOL from duty. It happens all the time: According to data gathered in 1998 by the National Fatherhood Initiative, 42% of American kids are growing up without fathers in their homes, a statistic Bishop is bent on improving.

The Results?

"We have been pretty overwhelmed by the results that we have seen. It has exceeded our expectations," Ault says.

Billy Kaplan, a Chicago therapist who coordinates Boot Camp for New Dad's activities in Illinois, agrees.

"It's been astounding. I've seen dramatic changes," says Kaplan, also the head coach at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston.

"One guy came to the workshop, and at the beginning said he was not going to have a relationship with the child's mother but he wanted to be an involved dad. He came back a few months later with full custody and was raising the child on his own," Kaplan says. "All graduates are saying it makes a big difference in parenting and preparing them to be better fathers and partners."

Kaplan has joined with a group called the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative to spread the program to additional hospitals and to men at risk for abandoning their babies, those who are poor, uneducated, and/or not married to the mother.

Regardless of such status, he says, "Once they are in the door, there is very little difference as far as discussion. No matter who you are, a diaper is a diaper."

Kaplan also is busy revising the curriculum so it translates well into several cultures, including Asian American, African American, and Latino.

For instance, in the African-American community, the grandmother is often a factor in the "the gatekeeper syndrome," he says. The course will teach new dads how to deal with the grandmother and not be shut out of infant care.

Boot Camp for New Dads sounds great to Yvonne Thornton, MD, PhD, a senior perinatologist at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City

"What a good, valuable, and much needed idea," she says.

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