Marcus Ward took two weeks’ paternity leave when daughter Zoe was born and found it a special time of bonding with his son Max. Photo: Simon Schluter
As Marcus Ward leans back on his living room couch, gently rocking his three-week-old daughter Zoe, he muses that the paternity leave he took after her birth wasn’t quite what he had imagined it would be.
Unlike the birth of his son Max two years ago, when Ward was forced to return to work for financial reasons after three days off, this time the self-employed plumber gave himself two weeks’ leave. In that time some things were as he expected – it was time filled with love and wonder, endless nappy changing and sleepless nights.
But the father-child bonding mostly occurred, he says, between him and his son rather than with his newborn. ”It is probably the most time I have ever spent with Max, just us. It was the first time I could turn my phone off and be a dad. Normally all I do is work, then home and spend an hour with the kids at night … But it was nice to wake up and give Max breakfast.”
Source: Father’s Leave, Father’s Involvement and Child Development.
Ward says the leave has been important for him and his children and crucial in helping his wife during the biggest transitions of their lives.
While the benefits of this kind of leave for fathers and mothers has been well documented, an international study has revealed that a father’s leave can also have significant impact on children’s cognitive development.
According to the study – drawn from data from Australia, Denmark, Britain and the United States – fathers who take a long period of leave (two weeks or more) after a birth are more likely to regularly engage in early child-caring tasks such as feeding and reading bedtime stories than fathers who do not take time off. The study, which will be presented to a conference in Melbourne next month, also found that those children did better in their early years, had greater cognitive development and better school readiness.
The study’s Australian author, Dr Jennifer Baxter, said the results revealed a strong relationship between fathers’ leave-taking at birth and their subsequent involvement in the lives of their children.
”Father’s leave is linked to more involvement in childcare activities such as helping a baby to eat, changing nappies, getting up in the night, bathing and reading to a child, compared to fathers who took no leave,” Dr Baxter said. “There was some evidence of children having better cognitive outcomes when fathers were more involved early on in their lives.
”In Australia, fathers’ involvement was linked with better scores for one out of four cognitive tests … the strongest association was observed in the United Kingdom, where children with highly involved fathers were faring better at ages two to three and four to five according to a number of cognitive tests, than children with less involved fathers.”
In each country it found that the overwhelming majority of fathers (more than 80 per cent) took some leave at the birth of their child. In Australia, 60 per cent of fathers took two weeks or more compared with 91 per cent in Denmark and 33 per cent in the US.
Dr Baxter, a senior researcher with the Australian Institute of Family Studies, said in Australia and the US, public policies to promote fathers’ involvement were less developed. Denmark, she said, has a 40-year history of work-family policies and work and care responsibilities were more often viewed as the responsibility of both parents.
The Australian results were based on surveys with 4000 families with children who were born in 2003-04. Since then paternity leave is likely to have increased with the introduction of fathers’ paid leave earlier this year. Under the Coalition’s paid parental leave policy, from July 1, 2015, fathers will be eligible for two weeks’ leave at full salary.