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Researchers have found that fathers who stimulate their 9-month-olds during play are more likely to enjoy secure attachment 3 to 9 months later.
Secure attachment between fathers and their toddlers is predicted by how fathers play with them. Researchers have found that fathers who stimulate their nine–month–olds during play are more likely to enjoy secure attachment three to nine months later. This happens, however, only if the father is not too intrusive during the playing, for example, by frequently limiting the child’s activities with physical or verbal commands, or by forcing the child to play with something that he/she does not like.
‘Stimulation’ was measured by video. Fathers and babies were recorded together, and researchers observed how often the father did things like exercising the baby’s arms and legs, lifting the baby up to ‘fly’, waving a toy in front of the baby or tickling the baby with a toy.
The research adds to our understanding of father-child play in early child development.
In experiments looking at what predicts secure attachment, mothers and fathers show different patterns. It has been found that when a father plays sensitively with his two-year-old (e.g., plays cooperatively with the child to support more mature play and takes the child’s point of view), then later, during adolescence, the child forms more positive understandings of close relationships. This link with sensitivity specifically during play has not been seen in research with mothers. Instead, mothers’ showing sensitivity during it predicts more secure attachment later, more so than for fathers who care sensitively. (It should be noted that all of this research looks at averages – there are variations among both mothers and fathers.)
Research also tell us that fathers, on average, interact with their infants more playfully, more vigorously and more physically than mothers do. Yet just like mothers, fathers form secure attachments with their do. It seems that children benefit from both having a safe haven and being able to explore. On average, mothers provide more of the former and fathers more of the latter.
In apparent contradiction to earlier research, in the experiment reported here, how sensitively fathers played with their children did not predict any more or less secure attachment later (in contrast to how intrusively the father played). The researchers suggest that this may be because showing sensitivity is important when the child is distressed and, in this experiment, involving only five minutes of father-child play, the children were not distressed.
This research was conducted in the USA and involved a small sample of 58 fathers with their infants and was quite narrow demographically. All the fathers were from dual–earner couples, 88% were married, 86% were white and the median income was $80,000.
Olsavsky AL, Berrigan MN, Schoppe-Sullivan SJ, Brown GL & Kamp Dush CM (2019), Paternal stimulation and father-infant attachment, Attachment & Human Development