The father of all research projects

Breadwinner. Authority figure. Affectionate at times, perhaps, but in a remote sort of way.

Playful, loving, cooing, willing and able to change a diaper when duty calls.

With a younger generation of men in developing countries being exposed to new ideas and changing cultures, the somewhat distant father figure of the past is transforming into a hands-on parent who spends quality time and energy with his young ones.

For nursing associate professor Lynn Rempel, that’s great news.

“The children of most involved fathers are found to have higher IQs, are more successful in school, have better emotional regulation and are less likely to have behavioural problems,” she says. “Even within the first year, you can see differences in cognitive development in infants who have responsive fathers who are engaged in play and other activities.”

Rempel is a member of a research team that aims to increase the involvement of fathers in their infants’ and toddlers’ lives as a way of improving children’s physical, cognitive and emotional development from conception to age two.

Funding the team is a $270,000 grant from the Saving Brains program, an initiative of Grand Challenges Canada, a program funded by the Government of Canada that supports “bold ideas with big impact in global health.”

Rempel and her colleague from St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, John Rempel, will be conducting research co-led by Tran Bich from Hanoi’s School of Public Health in Vietnam.

Their project – titled “Fathers Involvement: Saving Brains in Vietnam” – entails implementing a number of activities among 400 couples (and their 400 children) in several communities.

Activities include:
• small group antenatal and postpartum education through community health centres
• individual, home-based counselling
• multimedia messages about the importance of breastfeeding and fathers’ support for this
• “Fathers Clubs” developed with the labour trade union and the Farmers Association to provide peer support.

One goal is to train a few men to lead “Fathers Clubs,” which would encourage men to interact more with their children, Rempel says. In a past research initiative, groups of participants took part in a father contest, complete with poems, songs and skits, to see “who loves his wife and child the most” by encouraging mothers’ breastfeeding, Rempel says.

“The Saving Brains grant allows us to scale up work that’s already been happening in Vietnam and to support research in a way that will make it possible for us to do a strong test of whether father involvement can make a difference and how we can affect father involvement in Vietnam,” Rempel says.

She added her team hopes to create a model or “template” of activities that can be used to increase father involvement in other developing countries and that can be flexible ,according to the comfort level of men and their partners.

The Grand Challenges Canada Saving Brains program focuses on interventions that nurture and protect early brain development in the first 1,000 days of life. “It is designed to help millions of children in developing countries who fail to reach their full development potential due to such factors as malnutrition, infection, birth complications, or a lack of nurturing and stimulation at an early age,” says Laureen Harper, Saving Brains honourary chairwoman.

“Impoverished brains result in impoverished countries,” says Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada. “For a wide range of sad, all-too-familiar and preventable reasons, an estimated 200 million children under five years old in the world’s 112 low- and middle-income countries will fail to reach their brain’s full development potential.”

A total of 14 projects will be implemented in five African, six Asian and three Latin American/Caribbean countries. Seed grants of $270,000 are given to partner organizations in these countries. Three other seed grants are given to Canadian organizations.

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