Don’t forget about dad: Six strategies for getting fathers more involved in child feeding

Organizations around the world have committed to Every Woman Every Child, a multi-stakeholder movement to inspire action toward the United Nations’ Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health. FHI 360, through the Alive & Thrive project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, commits to improving infant and young child feeding and maternal nutrition in several countries in Asia and Africa. This commitment is one way that FHI 360 is helping to meet the aim of Every Women Every Child — to save the lives of 16 million women and children by 2015.

Don’t forget about dad: Six strategies for getting fathers more involved in child feeding

Whether he’s aware of his influence or not, almost every father in every culture influences his family’s choices about how to feed the children. His everyday decisions about how many of the eggs the family’s chickens lay will be sold at market and how many will be kept at home for the family to eat can make the difference between a stunted child and one who reaches his or her full growth potential.

The Alive & Thrive project reviewed programs from around the world that were designed to engage fathers in child feeding, identifying the strategies that seem to make these programs work. Not surprisingly, the six strategies we identified in the most innovative “dads” programs echo sound principles from behavior change and social marketing. Our review indicated that, especially when program planners apply these six strategies, fathers’ actions can lead to real improvements in nutrition.

Strategy 1: Grab them with emotion.

The book, Switch, served as a reminder of the influential power of emotion, relative to fact-based, rational messages. The authors’ image of an elephant (emotion) being guided by its human rider (rational thought) is provocative. Studies confirm that when people receive messages that evoke positive feelings, they are more receptive, recall the message better and are more likely to comply with the message. Alive & Thrive Ethiopia’s music video engages fathers and other family members by evoking warm feelings through striking visuals, smiling children, catchy music and a positive, can-do feel.

Strategy 2: Ease the way by busting stereotypes.

Gender roles are deeply embedded in culture, but sometimes it takes just a little humor or a surprising fact to help fathers take an active role in child health or feeding. Ethiopian fathers found lots to laugh about as our program put the spoon in their hands (“Cooking is women’s work!”), impressing upon them the importance of adding nutrient-rich foods like eggs to baby’s porridge.

Strategy 3: Find fathers where they already are.

We mean this literally: hold talks in tea stalls where men gather, reach men through religious leaders or buy media time during a televised sporting event that men are expected to be watching.

Strategy 4: Provide crystal-clear direction for actions fathers can take.

We borrow the phrase, “crystal-clear direction,” from Switch. If you are seeking behavior change, let fathers know what specific behaviors they can take rather than leaving them to guess. A study intervention funded by Alive & Thrive in Vietnam does one of the best jobs I have seen of telling fathers exactly what they can do to help their wives breastfeed exclusively for six months. If you check out only one item from the Alive & Thrive case study kit, please see this sample list of actions.

Strategy 5: Give fathers practice.

We know that knowledge alone is generally not sufficient to prompt behavior change. Building skills helps fathers feel confident they can adopt the actions. The Vietnam breastfeeding promotion showed a short video dramatizing a challenge to breastfeeding and compelled teams of fathers to come up with a positive response in support of breastfeeding. Men practiced speaking up to their own mothers or saying just the right phrase to a conflicted wife.

Strategy 6: Show fathers a benefit that they care about.

All effective behavior change interventions promote benefits that make the change seem irresistible. The programs we reviewed stressed that appropriate feeding in the first 2 years of life increased the chances the child would be intelligent. The programs also helped fathers feel that by taking action for child nutrition, they were doing what their society expected of them — a powerful driver of behaviors in any culture.

Fathers make a difference

The Alive & Thrive project’s experience is teaching us ways to ensure that fathers can play an active role in improving their children’s nutrition in the critical first 2 years of life. We are working to put the six strategies into action and believe that they will be helpful for other programs in designing interventions to step up fathers’ involvement in child health and nutrition.

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