Adjusting to parenthood: Fathers and non-birthing parents

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource offers information and advice on adjusting to parenthood, written especially for fathers and non-birthing parents. It has been developed with the guidance of family members with lived experience, practitioners and researchers.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. In this resource, the terms ‘father’ and ‘dad’ refer to all non-birthing parents, including the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child. This resource is designed to support all individuals, regardless of their sexuality, relationship status or gender identity.

Becoming a father or non-birthing parent is an amazing experience which can also bring lots of changes and challenges. The first year of your child’s life is a time of great joy but also a big adjustment for both you and your partner. Babies don’t come with instruction manuals, and it takes a while to get to know yours. It can be hard to balance caring for your baby, yourself and your partner, and your new role may feel overwhelming at times.

This resource is designed to help fathers and non-birthing parents who are adjusting to parenthood. It offers information and advice to help you navigate the changes and challenges of being a parent. It also aims to help you understand your baby’s needs and learn what you can do to support their mental health and wellbeing.

Adjusting to parenthood

Becoming a parent means making changes to many aspects of your life. Your identity, responsibilities, daily routines and relationships will all be impacted. If you feel shocked by these changes and how much is involved with being a parent, you’re definitely not alone.

Suddenly your baby is the centre of a whirlwind of activity in your home. It’s all about feeding, sleep times and nappy changes. In between all of this, there can be moments of joy as you get to know your baby. However, the new responsibilities of parenting can become overwhelming and exhausting, especially if you’re also working outside the home. Hard as it is while trying to balance work and family, it’s important to take care of yourself too. Our tips for self-care for new parents may help.

Lots of partners worry about how to be a ‘good parent’, changes to their relationship with their partner, or that they’re not bonding with their new baby.

Adjusting to parenthood can be emotional and stressful, especially if you’re dealing with other issues like work stress or money worries, or if you have had mental health difficulties in the past. Talking to a friend or family member who is a parent can help, because chances are they’ve felt like you do now. Many new parents experience depression or anxiety during this period, so it’s important to know the signs and get help if you’re struggling.

Fortunately, there are some great resources for fathers and non-birthing parents about caring for babies and adjusting to parenthood:

  • The Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) has lots of great resources, including information on adjusting to life as a new parent.
  • Dadvice from Beyond Blue provides lots of information and advice for new and expectant parents.
  • Beyond Blue also has some tips on facing your new dad fears.
  • The SMS4Dads service provides free text messages, support and tips for new dads.

Our resources about crying and feeding can also help you understand your baby’s behaviours and what you can do to support their wellbeing.

It’s also important to remember that every baby, every parent and every family is different. Rather than following every piece of advice or trying to stick to a strict routine, the best thing you can do is be patient and flexible and find the rhythm that works best for your baby and family.

‘If I had any expectations in the early days about what I was going to do, they went south. I had to let go of all my expectations and go with where the baby went.’

– Sam, new parent, South Australia

Getting involved with your baby

Children thrive when they have loving, attached, responsive interactions with their parent/s and caregivers in their early years. Infants love attention and reactions – the way your eyes light up and you smile when you see them – and they need you to help them to feel safe and secure.

Fathers and non-birthing parents are just as good at understanding, caring for and responding to the needs of their babies. In many homes, the mother/birthing parent does more of the initial day-to-day caring, at least for the first few months, so it can seem as though they’re naturally ‘better’ at it. But they have usually just had more practice. Both parents need to learn the skills of looking after a child.

Babies benefit from receiving care and nurture from all their caregivers. Often fathers and non-birthing parents think there’s not much they can do in the early months. But there are many ways you can bond and connect with your infant. Fathers and non-birthing parents also often respond and parent in different ways to the mother/birthing parent. So by getting involved in your baby’s care, you’ll be helping them to learn different social skills.

It’s normal to feel nervous or unsure as a new parent. But getting hands-on experience in caring for your baby is the best way to build your confidence and parenting skills.

‘Being stressed and tired and then having to try and settle her, it definitely tests your patience. But I think it makes you stronger where you start to get better and better every time you settle her. It’s a challenge, but we are getting there and it’s heading in the right direction.’

– Molly, mother, New South Wales

There will be times when your baby is crying or having trouble sleeping and nothing you do seems to work. It’s natural to want to ‘fix’ things and to feel frustrated if you can’t settle your baby. Sometimes it’s best to put your baby safely in their cot or pram and find some space to take a few deep breaths. Call a family member or friend and ask if they can come over to help for a bit.

You can find more tips in our resource on coping with your baby’s crying.

Bonding with your baby

Bonding and attachment are key to your baby’s development. It’s the connection you have with your baby that lets them know they are safe, loved and cared for. The good news is there are lots of simple things you can do to bond with your baby and support their social and emotional development:

  • Do the ‘essential’ stuff – like nappy changes, bathing, dressing and feeding. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it! And talk or sing to your baby about what you’re doing. For example, ‘It’s time to change your nappy – wave your legs in the air like you just don’t care!’. It doesn’t matter what you say or how bad your singing is; you’re helping your baby to learn language and communication skills.
  • Spend one-on-one time with your baby. This builds their attachment with you, and also gives your partner a break.
  • Show them you care. Respond to your baby’s cues (crying or making sounds to get your attention) with touch and gentle words. While your baby can’t tell you yet, you are very important to them, and they thrive on your attention and affection.
  • Mirror your baby’s facial expressions – for example, smiling when they smile, or poking your tongue out. And have a ‘conversation’ with them by repeating the sounds they make.
  • Play. It doesn’t have to involve toys or be complicated, just interact with your baby. Look into their eyes, sing nursery rhymes, play peek-a-boo. Spend time with them, while remembering that if they look away it may mean they need a break from the stimulation for a while. As your child grows, play is how they will share their feelings, learn and understand the world. For more ideas visit the Raising Children Network.

‘Over and above being tired and sleep deprived is the moments of joy. I remember when I first became a dad: I was busy supporting my wife, while working, and I often felt a bit stressed by the responsibility. It was easy to get caught up in those feelings. But then every now and then there were these wonderful moments of connection with my son that seemed to energise me. In those moments I didn’t really understand what I was feeling, but I realise now it was joy. I don’t think I had ever felt happiness so powerfully before.’

– Ben, father, South Australia

Your relationship and parenting as a team

Many couples experience changes in their relationship when they become parents. While you may feel a new level of connection with your partner, it’s also common to experience new stresses and strains. You might find you’re arguing more as you deal with the challenges of caring for a baby. This can lead to you spending less time together enjoying your baby.

The relationship you have with your baby is an important one, as it helps their development and builds a foundation for positive mental health throughout their lifetime. Strong relationships between caregivers create a positive environment in which infants can learn and grow.

Make a pact to be kind and listen to each other. It can be hard but make time to spend together as a couple, so you can talk and reconnect. When you feel ready, you could ask a family member or friend to stay with your baby so you can go out together – for dinner, a movie or a walk, for example. Or just try to spend time doing something together at home when your baby is asleep. Even just watching a series together on Netflix gives you something to talk about other than your baby (and who is the most tired!).

Talking, problem-solving and making decisions together are the best ways to cope with changes and look after your relationship. You may need to talk about:

  • your roles in and outside the home – for example, you might not be happy to be at home full-time, or you may be working too much and feel you’re not involved as much as you want to be with your infant
  • your ideas about parenting and family life
  • what needs to be done – like shopping, cooking, washing, earning money – and who will do what
  • how you will handle disagreements
  • the daily ‘grind’ – the good and bad things about caring for a baby that you’re both learning to manage every day
  • how you can find time to do some of the things you used to enjoy doing together.

When you and your partner work as a team and support each other through the challenges of parenting, you will both be able to cope better and enjoy the moments spent together with your baby. Taking time to work on your relationship as a parenting team will benefit your whole family. The Raising Children Network has some great tips for talking with your partner.

Domestic, family and sexual violence and abuse is never OK. Abuse can be physical, emotional, psychological and/or financial and is any pattern of behaviour with the aim of gaining power and control.

1800 RESPECT provides information and support for anyone experiencing violence and abuse. Their trained counsellors are available via phone on 1800 737 732 or online chat 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Get help if you’re struggling

Becoming a parent can be amazing, but it can also bring stress that can build up and affect your mental health. If you are feeling low or finding it hard to adjust to being a new parent, you are not alone.

Many people are aware that depression and anxiety is common among new mothers. But you may not have heard that around 1 in 10 new fathers also experience depression, and that anxiety affects up to 1 in 5 dads in the first year after their baby arrives.1 Visit Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) for more information on anxiety and depression in new parents.

Symptoms can vary from person to person, but some signs that you might be experiencing depression and/or anxiety include:

  • restlessness, trouble sleeping
  • low mood, feeling sad or crying for no reason
  • anxiety and worries that keep coming into your mind and are difficult to stop or control
  • low energy, low motivation
  • little or no interest in your baby
  • avoiding family, friends, social situations
  • not enjoying activities that you used to enjoy
  • changes in your appetite (for example, eating more or less than usual)
  • feeling irritable or angry often
  • thoughts of self-harm.

You can learn more about postnatal depression and anxiety in our resource, Depression and anxiety in new parents. Beyond Blue and the Raising Children Network also have more information about mental health and wellbeing for new fathers and non-birthing parents.

Talking, problem-solving and making decisions together are the best ways to cope with changes and look after your relationship.

Where to get help

It’s not normal to feel overwhelmed, to not be sleeping, and to feel disconnected from your partner for more than a couple of weeks. If you’re struggling, it’s vital that you get support. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s a way to make sure you can be the best parent and partner you can be. Talk to your GP or check out these resources and helplines that are especially for new parents:


1. Leiferman, J. A., Farewell, C. V., Jewell, J., Lacy, R., Walls, J., Harnke, B., & Paulson, J. F. (2021). Anxiety among fathers during the prenatal and postpartum period: a meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 42(2), 152–161. doi:10.1080/0167482X.2021.1885025.

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