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Fathers’ engagement with their children, or the lack thereof, in the first months of life may influence the development of behavioural problems later, according to a new study.
The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Oxford, found that fathers who were more involved early on had children with fewer problems at 12 months, while those who were less engaged had children who were less stable and more disturbed.
It is the first time the origin of behavioural problems has been traced to such an early age – before three months – and suggests early intervention could prevent difficulties in later life.
The researchers looked at nearly 200 families and found that children whose fathers were more positively engaged with them at age three months had fewer behavioral problems when they were one year old.
The findings were based on a study of 192 families from two maternity units in the UK, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The results are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
The researchers, led by Dr Paul Ramchandani, found interaction with the father tended to be more important for boys than girls.
The lack of paternal engagement could reflect wider problems between the father and his partner. It was also possible the infant's disturbed behaviour was an attempt to win attention.
The association between higher levels of interaction and fewer subsequent behavioral problems was strongest in sons. This suggests that boys are more susceptible to the influence of their father from a very early age, the researchers said.
"We don't yet know whether the fathers being more remote and disengaged are actually causing the behavioural problems in the children, but it does raise the possibility that these early interactions are important," Dr. Ramchandani said in a news release on the research.
Behavioural problems are the most common psychological issue in children and are associated with a wide range of problems during the teen years and adulthood, including doing poorly in school, delinquent behaviour, difficulty making friends and poor mental and physical health, the researchers noted in the release.
The new findings suggest that efforts to improve parent-child interaction early in life may help prevent behavioural problems, the researchers 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," Dr Ramchandani said.
"As every parent knows, raising a child is not an easy task," he added. "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."