A new study shows that fathers are more likely to have a leading role in their baby's life if he sees a resemblance in their physical appearance. And the father's close involvement improves the baby's health in the first year.
Of course, babies are healthier when they have a close relationship with both of their parents, but several studies have found that a father's involvement is specifically advantageous: Kids who are close with their dads are more socially and academically advanced than children without father figures in their lives.
So why does a physical resemblance between baby and daddy make the difference?
"The more a baby looks like their dad, the more the dad feels like the baby is his and the more bonded they feel with the baby because they look similar," explained Wyatt Fisher, Psy.D., a couples counselor from Colorado. "This increased bond and ownership over the baby leads to more involvement in their life and care from the father, which makes the baby healthier."
For this study, researchers looked at about 700 families who had kids who lived only with their mothers. They found a paternal resemblance to encourage the dad to spend more time with the baby.
Marlon R. Tracey, Ph.D., a co-author of the study and assistant professor at Southern Illinois University, explained that the results don't mean that all children who look like their dads are healthier, however, in single mother-led households, this resemblance can make a difference.
"We interpret our results as evidence that father's time improves child health in fragile families," Tracey said. In the report, the authors state that "non-resident fathers with relatively low time investment are more responsive to father-child resemblance."
The authors suspect that a father who does not live with his child may be more likely to spend greater time with a baby who looks like him because it makes the father feel more certain the baby is, in fact, his child.
Biological moms may not be affected in the same way by their baby's appearance because they have a bond with the baby from carrying it, noted Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist based in New Jersey and author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids.
The study authors say they'd like to see policies shaped around the result that time spent with a father has such a positive impact on the health of a child.
"Greater efforts could be made to encourage these fathers to frequently engage their children through parenting classes, health education, and job training to enhance earnings," said study co-author Solomon Polachek, a professor of economics at Binghamton University.
Regardless of the reasons why dads spend more time with their kids, that time is crucial.
"When both parents are involved, children have greater support—both physically and emotionally," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Everyone brings different strengths to being a parent, and having dad involved gives children access to a whole new set of those."