Playing with dolls predicts quality of fathering

Ever since it has become almost required that parents-to-be attend birth classes and destroy forests with the endless acquiring of books of advice, plenty of new fathers can be seen walking around all puffed up, full of expert knowledge and apparent confidence.

But how can they know if they’re actually up to the job of parenthood, which is ultimately about dealing with many things you don’t know, and being open to everything new and strange.

An Ohio State University experiment found a way.

They put a soon-to-be new dad and a baby doll together for five minutes, and ask the man to play with that doll.

The experiment found this was a pretty accurate predictor of the quality of their parenting when the real baby arrived.

Not the cutest kid in the world, and maybe that was the point when testing future fathers. Photo: OSU

According to a statement from the university, the researchers videotaped 182 expectant fathers during the third trimester of their partner’s pregnancy, observing how the men interacted with a doll that they were told represented the baby they were about to have.

The partners of the expectant fathers were also present, part of The New Parents, a long-term broader investigation of how well dual-income people successfully parent together.

The doll used in the experiment wasn’t the most attractive creation, more like a human-like critter made from cushions, no eyes.

It was stuffed and weighted with rice about 3.5 kilograms, similar to the weight of a newborn.

The experiments were recorded on video. An assistant playing the role of a nurse presented the “baby” to the parents.

Dr Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan says men with few intuitive parenting skills can be taught to do a good job. Photo: OSU

Dr Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan is co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State.

In a prepared statement, she said: “We were looking for how natural fathers acted with the baby.

“Did they hold it properly, smile at it and do things like gently pinching the baby’s foot or other positive behaviours that many people just instinctively do with babies.”

The video recordings and were assessed by “trained assistants” who rated the fathers on their level of intuitive parenting behaviours.

Nine months after the birth of the baby, the fathers’ parenting quality was assessed by a different team of research assistants who watched the fathers try to teach their actual human babies to play with either a shape sorter or stacking rings.

The assistants rated how well the fathers paid attention and responded to their child, how engaged they were, and their expression of positive feelings.

Dr Lauren Altenburger has been working on the program since she was a doctoral student. Photo OSU

The lead study author was Dr Lauren Altenburger, who began the work as a doctoral student at the Ohio State University.

She is now an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University-Shenango, where the study was completed.

Dr Altenburger said: “Those dads who were rated as showing more intuitive parenting skills with the doll a year earlier tended to have a more positive interaction with their real child.”

The men who parented well tended to score high with two traits: “Being open to new experiences … obviously helpful for dads becoming parents for the first time … and conscientiousness, which is being careful and diligent with your responsibilities.”

The researchers said the results could help healthcare professionals and others who work with expectant couples to identify and help fathers who may need extra help learning their role as a parent.

“Although it is called ‘intuitive parenting’, it isn’t really intuitive for everyone. We need to work with fathers to make sure they know how to be the best fathers they can be,” Dr Schoppe-Sullivan said.