NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Fathers who are involved in their children's prenatal care are more likely to be around for the long haul, whether they marry the child's mother or not, new study findings suggest.
The findings, say researchers, suggest that such early involvement -- even more so than marriage, per se -- is crucial to starting a bond between father and child.
"Unmarried dads are less likely to drift away if they are involved during this vital period when a family can begin to bond," lead researcher Natasha J. Cabrera, of the University of Maryland in College Park, said in a university statement.
She and her colleagues based their conclusions on an ongoing study of 5,000 U.S. couples with a young child born between 1998 and 2000.
The researchers focused on 1,686 fathers who were not married to their child's mother at the outset of the study.
They found the fathers who'd been involved during pregnancy -- buying things for the baby, helping with the mother with transportation or other tasks, or being present at the birth -- were more likely to be close to their child 3 years later.
Fathers who were living with their children, not surprisingly, were also more involved, Cabrera's group reports in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Fathers who had helped their child's mother during pregnancy were also more likely to move in with her and their child.
Marital status by itself was not a primary determinant of whether a father was involved in his child's life. "It is the decision that couples make to strengthen commitment and move in together that is important, rather than marital status per se," Cabrera said.
"You don't need much imagination to see that a live-in dad is likely to be more involved in child care and family life."
She noted that research has consistently shown that creation of a "stable home life" predicts whether a father will be involved in raising his child.
"What we've learned here," Cabrera added, "is that the pre-natal months are when that kind of family structure is most likely to coalesce."
SOURCE: Journal of Marriage and Family, December 2008.