In less than a month, John Webb will become a first-time father.
Already, he and his wife have started a college fund. He has arranged to take time off from work to support his wife and help care for the baby.
But what should he do when the baby cries?
“I’m a planner,” he said. “I like to be prepared.”
He found answers to his questions and other valuable insights at Boot Camp for New Dads, a man-to-man, community-based workshop that inspires and equips men of diverse ages and backgrounds to become confidently engaged with their infants, support their mates and personally navigate their transformation into dads. On a recent Saturday morning at Wilmington Annex, across the street from Christiana Care’s Wilmington Hospital, fathers and babies gathered with more seasoned dads who recently completed training as coaches.
Boot Camp sessions are part of an initiative by Christiana Care Health Ambassadors to bring outreach and education directly to people in the community. The program is the fruit of more than two years of work by the Wilmington Consortium, a group of more than 20 agencies committed to working with neighborhood residents to address health disparities, improve birth outcomes and prevent infant mortality in the city of Wilmington, in partnership with the Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition.
“As we looked for ways to improve perinatal health, we realized that we needed to include men,” said Mychal L. Anderson Thomas M.D., MPH, FACOG. “The idea is to engage dads when they are most receptive, just before or just after the child is born.”
Implementation of the program is led by Dr. Thomas, who is a member of Christiana Care’s OB-GYN faculty and a Westside Family Healthcare OB-GYN consultant, along with Carla Aponte, program manager for Community Health in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and co-chair of the Wilmington Consortium, and Todd Hartsock, a health ambassador and Christiana Care peer counselor.
Dr. Thomas learned about the Boot Camp concept during her medical school and residency training in Richmond, Virginia, where the initiative has been successful in supporting fathers in becoming more engaged with their children’s care. As the Wilmington Consortium looked to add fatherhood initiatives, she advocated bringing the program to Delaware.
“It’s a safe place for men where they can learn how to better partner with the mom and plug in with their baby,” she said. “The goal is for men to have ongoing support from other dads and community resources.”
Ultimately, the program will include reunion meetings, ongoing support and a Boot Camp for Spanish-speaking fathers.
As Hartsock guided the men through the program, he advised new fathers to bond with their babies, while providing the mothers with a break.
“Make sure you have alone time with the baby,” he said. “Send mom to go to something she enjoys.”
He told them to be prepared for the gatekeeper phenomenon, in which “the dad is trying to change a diaper and the mom is hovering over the baby, telling him he is doing it all wrong.”
He also spoke about shaken-baby syndrome — “it only takes one shake to cause permanent damage” — and urged dads to plan ahead to prepare for frustrating scenarios.
“Having a baby is stressful, and it’s important to know what your boiling point is,” he said. “Have a go-to thing in the back of your mind that will calm you down.”
In the beginning, he said, fathers should expect to play the role of protector.
“The father will be the one to make decisions so the mom can focus on delivery. We look to dad to implement that. Who can visit the baby after you come home? Do they need to wash their hands?”
Javier Madariaga, who attended with his six-week-old son Santiago, said he and his wife told a relative with a cold that he couldn’t visit the baby until he was well.
More experienced fathers offered additional advice.
Don’t allow anyone to smoke around the baby.
Bad language should not be permitted.
Lots of new moms get the baby blues, a brief period of feeling sadness after giving birth.
Evan Smith, a coach and the father of a 17-year-old daughter, advised the men to be mindful of their partners’ needs.
“She is going through a lot of changes with her body, so you have to be sensitive to that,” he said.
About 15 percent of mothers experience postpartum depression.
“Get family support, get medical support, help the mother so she can help the baby,” Hartsock said.
Jerzy Wlock, the stay-at-home dad of a 20-month-old daughter, became a coach so he could mentor other men who plan to become primary caregivers.
“When I knew I was going to be a stay-at-home dad, I looked for information, and there was nothing,” he said. “I got excited when I learned about this program.”
Webb, the father-to-be, got hands-on experience when three-month-old Kolby Cipriani started crying.
He patted the baby’s back.
He rocked the baby.
Kolby kept crying.
Then Kolby’s dad, John Cipriani, handed Webb a bottle. Gently, he began feeding the baby. Kolby stopped crying.
The coaches suggested other strategies for keeping babies content.
Get a swing you can set to music. Set up a space so a grandmother or an aunt can spend the night. Be sure to get a few extra pacifiers.
And don’t forget mom and dad.
“Accept all the help you can get — people bringing food, offering to hold the baby,” Madariaga said.
He said bonding with his son at birth was a special experience. He assured Webb that his daughter’s birth would be a life-altering event.
“Make sure you do skin-to-skin at the hospital. Put her on your chest so she can hear your heartbeat,” he said. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
To learn more about Boot Camp for New Dads or register for an upcoming event, visit https://events.christianacare.org or call Todd Hartsock at 302-320-1379.