London - Babies learn faster if their fathers engage with them, a study suggests.
It found that infants with more remote fathers tended to be slower at recognising colours and objects.
The study, by researchers at Imperial College London, King’s College London and Oxford University, is one of the first to examine the impact of men, rather than women, on a child’s development.
Fathers were monitored playing with their children at the age of three months and reading to them at two years.
The results suggest it is hugely important that men speak to a child in a positive tone of voice, pay attention to what interests them and elaborate on their speech.
It is thought this superior social interaction helps babies make sense of the world, making them more intelligent as toddlers.
"Even as early as three months, these father-child interactions can positively predict cognitive development almost two years later," said Paul Ramchandani, the Imperial College professor who led the research. "There’s something probably quite meaningful for later development, and that really hasn’t been shown much before."
Playtime with men has been found to be more stimulating and vigorous than that provided by mothers, encouraging children to take risks and explore.
The researchers asked 128 men to play with their three-month-old babies, without toys, for three minutes, grading how sensitive, intrusive, remote and depressive they were with their child. The fathers, all well-educated, were then filmed reading a book to their child at two years old.
Mental development tests were carried out when children were two, finding those with greater paternal engagement and less controlling fathers did better.
These included men who responded to their children spotting something of interest. When reading a book, they were more likely to notice a child focusing on a picture, asking them about it and relating it to real life. These children were then better at mental development tests, displaying the ability to follow directions and name objects.
Dr Vaheshta Sethna of King’s, who co-wrote the study, said: "We also found that children interacting with sensitive, calm and less anxious fathers during a book session at the age of two showed better cognitive development, including attention, problem-solving, language and social skills.
"The clear message for new fathers here is to get stuck in and play with your baby. Even when they’re really young playing and interacting with them can have a positive effect."
The study, published in the Infant Mental Health Journal, said: "It is likely that remote fathers use fewer verbal and non-verbal strategies to communicate with their infants, thereby reducing the infant’s social learning experience.
"Moreover, the first year of life is a period characterised by rapid advances in language and other symbolic competencies."