Becoming a parent is a major life event, which motivates some parents to change health-related behaviours. However, current guidelines and services focus on supporting mothers, despite the impact that fathers’ health behaviours, including drinking alcohol and smoking can have on families:

Fatherhood can be an opportunity to change drinking and smoking habits, but little support is available

We undertook a world-wide review, commissioned by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, to understand men’s experiences of drinking alcohol in early fatherhood and how new fathers can be supported to reduce drinking.

We found only five studies, published across the world. This shows that fathers’ voices are seldom heard. The review found that men may reduce how much they drink to support their pregnant partner and some men want to be good role models for their children. However, it remains unclear how to support fathers to drink less. Our review found that text messaging could be used successfully to engage with men, but we do not know how effective such an approach is in terms of providing support. Some fathers may prefer face-to-face support. One study included in our review found that men who received face-to-face support reduced both drinking and smoking.

Reducing smoking and creating smoke-free homes is important for protecting children from second-hand smoke exposure. A world-wide review, funded by Cancer Research UK, found that fathers want to be good role models, but they have limited knowledge about second-hand smoke risks. Similar to the review looking at fathers’ drinking, this review did not find any studies focusing on strategies to support fathers in changing their behaviour. Moreover, none of the studies looked at separated fathers’ experiences. This is important given many children spend their time living between two parents’ homes.

How can we better support fathers?

Social and cultural shifts in recent years mean that fathers are active parents. Better support for them can benefit the whole family, and improve gender equity as well as health.

Engaging with and supporting fathers may require different approaches. These approaches should acknowledge contextual and gender-specific factors that currently shape men’s decisions and experiences. For example, some men may associate smoking and drinking with masculinity, and some may engage in such behaviours as a way to manage everyday stress.

Health professionals, including midwives and health visitors, may be well placed to discuss the link between fatherhood and health behaviours with men. Antenatal services need to signal they are father-friendly, as a lot of men believe that antenatal services are for expectant mothers only. This could include men’s magazines and pictures of fathers on leaflets and in waiting rooms.

Finally, we need to change the way we talk about parental roles. We still tend to think about mothers rather than fathers when discussing family and children’s health, therefore reinforcing fathers’ role as “bystanders”.

Missed opportunities

Fatherhood presents an opportunity to support men in adopting healthy behaviours, including drinking and smoking less. There is a need to speak with fathers and find ways to support them, as insufficient understanding of men’s needs can result in missed opportunities to address unhealthy behaviours among men during an important transition into fatherhood.

Future research needs to explore when and why fathers drink and smoke, and what support they need to change such behaviours. The views of underrepresented fathers, such as first-time dads and separated dads, also need to be heard.

Key findings reports:

Alcohol – https://www.ias.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/rp44022021.pdf

Written by Dr Elena D Dimova, Glasgow Caledonian University, and Dr Rachel O’Donnell, University of Stirling

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.