"Big Four" Highlights


Ultrasound Psychology

Researcher reveals the power of prenatal views for fathers

By Brian Caulfield
Editor, Fathers for Good

Dads, remember the first time you saw your child? If you’re a fairly new father, you probably got that glimpse in the womb through the wonder of an ultrasound. When that squirmy image came into focus, you probably felt a rush of pride and love. One look is all it took to capture your heart for life.

Tova Neuget Walsh studies that special time when a man bonds with his child in the womb and the implications the encounter has for his relationship with the mother and child. With a doctorate in social work and psychology from the University of Michigan, she is the 2013-2015 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She corresponded with Fathers for Good by e-mail about her work.

Fathers for Good: What led you originally to the study of fathers and fatherhood? Is this an overlooked topic?

Tova Walsh studies the positive effects of an ultrasound on a man's fatherhood.

Tova Walsh: Before starting graduate school, I worked with home visiting programs in the United States and the Caribbean, providing information, resources and support to expectant and new parents during pregnancy and throughout their child’s first three years. Often I worked only with mothers and children, but sometimes I had the opportunity to work with fathers too. In doing this work, I met a number of men for whom the transition to fatherhood was a time of high hopes that prompted reflection on their own experiences of being fathered and the types of fathers they wanted to be for their own children, as well as heightened openness to making changes in their lives to facilitate becoming the kind of father they hoped to be.

At the same time, I discovered that not much is known about how to effectively engage fathers; most “parenting” programs were developed with mothers in mind, and both research and practice are still catching up to changing societal norms wherein fathers may play an expanded role in their children’s lives.

My early professional experiences inspired me to dig into the research on fathers and fatherhood as a Ph.D. student, and discovering that there is a growing but still limited body of work in this area made me eager to contribute. My research examines the formation of paternal identity, the process of relationship development between father and child, and fathers’ involvement in prenatal and pediatric care, with the goal of supporting the establishment of positive trajectories of father engagement.

FFG: Your recent research looks at the influence of ultrasound images on expectant fathers.

Tova Walsh: In my research on how fathers experience attending a prenatal ultrasound, I find that the ultrasound vastly increases men’s perception of the reality of the pregnancy and child, and so stimulates the rapid expansion of thoughts and feelings about becoming a parent. This suggests the timeliness of efforts to engage fathers at the time of ultrasound to nurture men’s development in their father role. The shared aspect of the experience is central to fathers’ accounts, suggesting that this is also a timely moment for efforts to promote enhanced support toward mothers-to-be and strengthen the emerging co-parenting relationship.

The ultrasound presents a specific moment of opportunity when fathers are likely to be present along with mothers in a prenatal care setting, but I think the larger span of pregnancy offers a critical window to engage fathers and strengthen families.

FFG: Tell us about your research on returning military fathers.

Tova Walsh: My research has focused on the relationships between military fathers and their young children, and fathers’ experiences of parenting a young child across separations and reunions demanded by military deployments.

When a service member returns home, often great joy is accompanied by significant challenges, including adjusting to the service member’s return and the potentially necessary accommodation to combat-related injuries or psychological impacts; reestablishing relationships, roles and routines; and feelings of isolation and lack of needed supports.

For fathers of young children, there is the additional challenge of reconnecting with a child who has undergone significant developmental transitions, and who, by nature of age, may not communicate directly, may exhibit challenging behaviors, and yet is dependent on parents for meeting emotional needs. Military fathers describe powerful motivation to foster and sustain strong father-child relationships, and research findings underscore both the resilience and coping abilities of service members and their families, and the need for sustained support for fathers and families during the extended period of reunification.    

FFG: What hopeful message to fathers in general can you offer based on your research?

Tova Walsh: At every stage of your child’s growth and development, your positive involvement is meaningful. Even before a child is born, by providing your pregnant partner with important practical and moral support, you can contribute to positive maternal and birth outcomes and begin building the foundation for your children and family to thrive. If/when you and your family experience periods of heightened stress or even extended separation (as, for example, in the case of military deployment), your family can continue to thrive. When family members respond to one another’s need for connection, nurture, and support, relationships can be (re)built and strengthened.