Babies whose fathers engage positively with them at three months old behave better at 12 months, a study suggests.
Researchers observed how fathers interacted with their babies at three months and then assessed the same children’s behaviour at a year.
The team, from Oxford University, studied 192 families from Oxford and Milton Keynes in their homes.
Lead author Dr Paul Ramchandani said: “We found children whose fathers were more engaged had better outcomes.”
He added: “At the other end of the scale, children tended to have greater behavioural problems when their fathers were more remote and lost in their own thoughts or when their father interacted less with them.
“The association tended to be stronger for boys than for girls, suggesting that perhaps boys are more susceptible to the influence of their father from a very early age.
The fathers were filmed twice with their three-month-old babies, having been asked to play with them without using toys or objects.
The videotaped interactions were later rated for various measures, including sensitivity and remoteness.
For the 12-month part of the study parents had to complete questionnaires, including an internationally used child behaviour checklist.
The checklist includes questions on whether the child cries a lot, is easy to get to sleep and to feed, how demanding or fearful the child is and how willing to try new things, to look others in the eye and to engage with other children.
A high score on the checklist has been found to predict long-term behavioural difficulties.
The study draws on previous research suggesting long-term behavioural problems often stem from poor parenting during very early childhood – but most of this research has focused on the mothers’ role.
Writing in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the researchers said: “This is the first time that this apparent influence has been demonstrated for observed father-infant interaction and such early onset behaviour problems.”
The researchers suggest a father whose relationship with the mother is troubled could find it harder to engage with their baby, causing the child to behave badly in order to get attention.
The report, funded by Wellcome Trust, also suggests outside help aimed at improving interactions between fathers and their children in the first few weeks after birth could improve behaviour later in life.
Dr Ramchandani said: “Focusing on the infant’s first few months is important as this is a crucial period for development and the infant is very susceptible to environmental influences, such as the quality of parental care and interaction.
“As every parent knows, raising a child is not an easy task. Our research adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests that intervening early to help parents can make a positive impact on how their infant develops.”