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July 1, 2020

Guys with Dolls

Pretend parenting with a baby doll is a good way to figure out which dads-to-be could use help with their fatherhood skills.

Becoming a parent is a big change, one that new parents aren't always ready for. The good news is that help is available — parenting skills can be taught. There's a way to find out which dads may need some extra help in that department. Just five minutes of role play with a simulated baby can reveal a surprising amount of information about a man's parenting skills, according to a new study.

Expecting couples were visited at home by researchers, and the father was presented with their “baby” — a custom-made doll that weighed between seven and eight pounds and was dressed in typical infant clothing.

“We were looking for how natural fathers acted with the baby. Did they hold it properly, smile at it and do things like gently pinching the baby's foot or other positive behaviors that many people just instinctively do with babies?” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, study co-author and professor of psychology at Ohio State.

“Although it is called ‘intuitive parenting,’ it isn't really intuitive for everyone.”

Over 180 expectant fathers were videotaped during the third trimester of their partners' pregnancy. Researchers observed how the men interacted with the doll that was posing as their new bundle of joy, rating them on their level of intuitive parenting while they played with it.

Nine months after their babies were born, the fathers' actual parenting skills were evaluated by a different team of researchers who observed the new dads playing with their child. They rated fathers on how well they paid attention and responded to their child, how engaged they were and how positively they were acting overall.

Dads who were rated as showing more intuitive parenting skills with the doll a year earlier tended to also receive higher ratings when playing with their real child.

This was true even after taking into account several other factors that could affect how well fathers were parenting their infant, such as the men's personality traits, their co-parenting relationship with the child's mother and the child's temperament.

And for those who didn't do so well with the doll? Well, it's better to find this out early.

Of course there's only so much you can learn from watching a prospective parent interact with a doll. But the findings suggest that it could be a quick way to find out which new parents need a helping hand the most.

“Although it is called ‘intuitive parenting,’ it isn't really intuitive for everyone. We need to work with fathers to make sure they know how to be the best fathers they can be,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.

Other findings in the study emphasize the importance of moms and dads working together to raise their child.

Bewildered prospective dads might take a look at some advice from Fatherly, tips that will help get you into dad mode. There are also plenty of other websites that offer advice, so pick the one that works best for you.

An article on the study appears in the Journal of Family Psychology.

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