Daddy Boot Camp

How an increasingly popular program prepares rookie fathers to hit the ground crawling.




Halfway through Boot Camp for New Dads, following a primer on the dangers posed to babies by such random household items as buckets and bottlecaps, the coaches (aka "Drool Sergeants") sent the rookies to the lavatory to wash their hands. Next up: a tutorial on how to hold an infant, complete with instructions on the importance of providing neck support and minding little fontanels. The four expectant dads in Annex B at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland did as they were told.

At Boot Camp, a program designed to prepare fathers-to-be for the challenges and joys awaiting them, everyone has a job to do. Rookies are the apprehensive students, coaches are the class facilitators, and veterans are the camp graduates who bring their babies to the workshops to provide dads-to-be with hands-on experience. Much of the program's appeal to men who never quite got comfortable with the jargon of childbirth classes -- enough about the mucous plug, already! -- is that it imparts its lessons in a locker-room environment designed to make guys feel comfortable sharing their opinions and concerns -- and, for that matter, chewing sunflower seeds and scratching themselves. The approach works: Boot Camp has grown into the country's largest program for new fathers, enlightening and reassuring more than 100,000 of them since 1990.

Despite its "No Girls Allowed" shtick, the camp can be a new mother's best friend. It represents the latest (and most admirable) stage in Dad's evolution from cigar-dispensing buffoon to pediatric pulling guard, leading interference for Mom in the hospital and at home. "We're here to make a new template," says Oakland Boot Camp coach Phill Palmer, 48. "We want to be there from the start, sharing the joys, the responsibilities -- everything. Boot Camp gets us involved in the process. It's up to us to keep ourselves there."

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