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The call is out to all rural and remote health workers to spread the word to new dads and dads-to-be about a free text-based service designed especially for them.
Text-based information service SMS4dads has already taken off in urban areas and is now targeting new rural, remote and First Nations dads. Since being relaunched late in 2021, the program has engaged almost 2000 dads.
“Using mobile phones as the communication tool has been a major part of the success,” says David Edwards who manages Resource Development for the program at the University of Newcastle, where the model was developed.
“There’s not a lot out there that speaks directly to dads and this service is easy, free and user-friendly. Importantly, the texts are not intrusive but are delivered in a way that dads can access the information at a time that suits them.
“Many dads don’t grasp how important they are for their partners and their children. SMS4dads reminds them of the key role they play and the things they can do to look after their baby, their partner and themselves.
“The dads get three messages a week, from as early as 12 weeks into their partner’s pregnancy up until their baby turns one.”
Roy & Steph with baby William. Photo Credit: Ange Maloney
While it’s easy to opt out of the service, over 80% stay with SMS4dads to completion.
David hopes that not only midwives but all health workers “will support the promotion of the program, get mums to look at the website and encourage their partners.”
“Men are pretty new to talking about emotions and parenting, and I think we are still finding our way even after feminism made some breakthroughs,” he says.
“When it comes to talks from the health worker about pregnancy and birth, lots of the dads still go outside for a cigarette.
“We’d love to see them encouraged to stay and yarn, come to ante-natal classes and find out about SMS4dads as well as other paternity services.”
Dads have been used to being both providers and protectors, says David, himself the father of two grown-up sons.
“I’d like to think my generation has paved the way for fathers to recognise the third role of nurturer,” he says. “Fathers are generally doing their best, but so often it’s without much experience or role modelling. And that’s where this program can help fill the gap. One dad summed it up perfectly when he said that SMS4dads was like a mate tapping him on the shoulder.”
Kaiden Powell with Yindyamurra. Credit: Ange Maloney
There are three pillars to the SMS4dads text messages.
“The first is to help strengthen father and baby connection and for dad to be more engaged in early parenting,” says David.
“The second is to strengthen the mum and dad connection. Team parenting is so important to give baby the best start to life emotionally and physically. Even if relationships don’t last the distance, it’s important to make sure dad’s connection with baby and their mum continues throughout the child’s life to maximise childhood development outcomes and avoid trauma around abandonment.
“Thirdly, the text messages support the men as individuals. Mums are great at supporting each other. We have to follow suit.”
The evidence-based, plain-language text messages are developed in consultation with subject matter experts. They feature easy-to-follow birth and parenting tips and encouragement, developmental info, and tips regarding one’s own health and ways to support one’s partner.
“Our prompts don’t tell dads what to do,” says David. “They suggest what might be going on and give examples of how they can support their new family.”
“For example, week six after the baby is born, is often when bub finds his or her lungs. The dad receives a text that asks, ‘Is baby crying a lot?’ then reassures him that crying is common, normal around this time, but if baby is crying for very long periods of time, suggests getting a check-up.”
An important component is an interactive text check-in – a mood tracker – which is particularly useful for men who are struggling a bit, says David.
“If a dad flags he’s not going so well, we text him and ask if he has support. If the dad replies that he doesn’t and that he needs support, we can connect him to a call-back service to provide this over the phone.”
Health workers can find out more about SMS4dads at sms4dads.com.au where there is an option to sign up for a brief ‘taster’ experience of the messages. Posters are available to display in the clinics and David is also available for further information and access to materials (firstname.lastname@example.org).