How Can Men Be Engaged in Maternal and Child Health?

Posted June 30, 2016 by Josh Grant

Male Involvement in MCH
Men and dads need to be engaged early on to provide support for maternal and child health.

Parental involvement has a profound effect on children’s health. To help create a voice for fathers and encourage them to be engaged with maternal and child health (MCH) programs, the National Healthy Start Association (NHSA) created its Where Dads Matter initiative in 2006. The NHSA wanted to foster national collaboration to bring projects conducted by local agencies like Boston Healthy Start to other areas and improve support for dads and fathers.

Kenn Harris helped establish fatherhood projects at the Boston Healthy Start Initiative and New Haven Healthy Start program, where he is the director. He is also president of the NHSA and recently spoke with us about Where Dads Matter, its impact and the role that male caregivers play in MCH programs.

Why are dads and father figures so important to children’s health outcomes?

Research shows that mothers who are supported during pregnancy increase their chances for better birth outcomes, giving children a healthy start in the beginning. When dads and father figures are connected early, they’re more likely to stay involved during important development years, which can reduce behavior challenges and increase scholastic achievement.

How did the NHSA identify male involvement in MCH programs as a focus area?

The NHSA has always been about healthy families and communities. Early on, the NHSA made the connection that women’s partners were important components in achieving healthy pregnancies and optimal birth outcomes. Men and fathers also come into view when applying a life course perspective, contributing to children’s early development and on through their school years.

Establishing Where Dads Matter helped us bring men and this work into view. In addition to needing funding for this work, our projects needed assistance in how to enhance and strengthen their services to include men and fathers. Our focus has brought additional resources to this area but we intend to garner more to more fully respond to the need.

What are some of the opportunities for change that you and the initiative have identified to improve male involvement?

Where Dads Matter applies the perspective that includes integrating men and fathers in four stages related to pregnancy: before, during, after and beyond. We call it “paternal involvement” because our model for fatherhood programs focuses on an early connection to pregnancy and the child, birth outcomes, parenting and co-parenting. Our fatherhood programs build from what we have learned working with MCH programs. The opportunities for change are created when we widen existing doors within MCH programing for fatherhood inclusion like prenatal clinics, breastfeeding and nursing, family planning and parenting class.

We also create new tools to support programs: the Core Adaptive Model for Fatherhood and Male Involvement (CAM for Fatherhood) is a 2-day training course assists in creating “roadmaps” for fatherhood work. There are also webinars and other tailored onsite training for programs that want to include fatherhood into their existing work, in addition to our annual summit on fatherhood. Texting for Dads also offers a way to connect dads with messages about pregnancy and baby development as well as his own health. All our programs strive to provide opportunities for men to engage in the well-being of children, support healthy relationships between parents, and provide an opportunity for self-sufficiency and the economic stability of the family.

How has the definition of paternal involvement evolved over time?

It has evolved as the male involvement movement grew and new research started to emerge. As a community-based program that’s been around for more than 20 years, the NHSA wanted to explore the definition from the perspective of actual community members, which there wasn’t much written about from this perspective. Where Dads Matter is unique in the fatherhood work because we are the only national organization that targets this work at preconception.

We conducted a study to define male involvement during pregnancy and obtain community-based recommendations for interventions to improve male involvement during pregnancy. The conclusions, published in Childbirth and Pregnancy in 2013, were that individual, family, community, societal and policy factors play a role in barring or diminishing the involvement of fathers during pregnancy, which future interventions could help resolve.

What are some successful strategies for ensuring male involvement in children’s health?
Connect dads early! Find ways to include him along the life course by identifying a role and responsibility for him before, during, after and beyond pregnancy.

Male involvement and fatherhood programs should help men connect to health services for themselves so they can better contribute to children’s health. Beyond that, organizations can offer staff training for male inclusion in MCH programs and to build capacity to promote male inclusion. In cases where capacity isn’t available, partnerships with other organizations could be beneficial.

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