Deployed Dad, New Baby: 12 Ways to Bring Them Together

Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Jeff Reyes, assigned to the guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81), meets his baby for the first time as the ship arrives in Norfolk in 2013. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sabrina Fine/Navy
Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Jeff Reyes, assigned to the guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81), meets his baby for the first time as the ship arrives in Norfolk in 2013. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sabrina Fine/Navy

Got a question about pregnancy or babies? It is almost impossible to stump Heidi Murkoff, author of the iconic What To Expect When You Are Expecting series.

But one military spouse and pregnant mom brought up a question that was hard even for Murkoff to answer.

The mom said her service member was going on a two-month-long training three weeks after their baby was born. Then he was on unaccompanied orders to Korea for a year. "How can I keep my husband and my baby close?" she asked.

Murkoff paused.

Good question.

How do you keep new parents close to babies when they are stationed thousands of miles away?

Murkoff usually advises skin-to-skin contact to aid bonding between dads and babies, as well as encouraging the dad to do things for the baby on his own to build his confidence.

But what if the deployed parent simply isn't there?

Military life isn't kind to babies.

Not only are dads routinely absent during a baby's birth and first year, but moms in uniform also have to deploy after a baby is born. Parents in uniform worry that the baby won't know them. Their partners worry about their babies never bonding to that deployed parent.

Murkoff turned to parents-to-be for suggestions. We turned to our experienced audience to get their tricks and tips about how to get babies and deployed parents together again. Here is what you need to know:

1. Worry a little.

Having a deployed parent is one of those undeniable truths of a military childhood. Yet we all still worry about our own baby.

Tell yourself that worry is doing a certain kind of work for you during pregnancy. Like worrying about whether to breastfeed or bottlefeed or worrying about where the baby will sleep, this kind of worry helps prepare you to take care of the baby.

But only worry a little. Then look at all those cute military baby pictures on Pinterest to remind yourself that things are going to be OK.

2. Take care of yourself.

Even though military folks are more likely to have children living at home than the general population, you might be surprised to know that there is very little research on the effect of deployment on babies.

The one thing you need to know is that researchers have found again and again that at ALL ages, the well-being of the child is strongly associated with the well-being of the parent at home. If you are managing the deployment well enough (perfection not required), then your baby will do fine, too.

3. Video chat if possible.

One of the most commonly mentioned tips from new parents was to do as much online visiting as possible with your deployed service member. Keyword: possible. Most Navy vessels do not have the bandwidth to allow a lot of Skyping. Other commands are forward deployed and can't provide Skype or other online videos. Do what you can and enjoy it.

4. Make a Daddy (or Mommy) mobile.

Babies are naturally wired to be drawn to faces. One mom said she made a mobile that featured pictures of her soldier's face above the crib. Her baby loved it. (As always, remember to keep all items a baby could choke on out of reach.)

5. Deploy your photos.

Other moms recommended putting together a photo album featuring pictures of the deployed service member. Or putting up pictures of your service member at eye level for baby around the house. Or laminating a big picture of your service member and keeping it in your bin of baby toys. Older babies and toddlers might also like a slideshow of deployed dad or mom pictures on your tablet or cell phone.

6. Get the baby on a schedule.

According to readers, the Fort Bragg Rule of Military Parenting requires only two words: Be consistent.

Getting the baby on a schedule now makes it easier for the deployed parent to step into that schedule when they get home.

7. Play 'Where's Daddy'?

Babies benefit from lots of words coming in their direction. One mom told her group how they would play a game she called Where's Daddy? (Where's Mommy? would also work.)

While she was changing her daughter or getting her dressed, she would ask Where's Daddy? Then her baby would point to a picture of her soldier next to the changing table. Then the mom would say something about how Daddy was at work or that Daddy was probably eating dinner right now or that Daddy liked to run on the beach (or whatever).

Other parents said that they had a routine where they would always say, "Good morning, Daddy" or "Goodnight, Mommy" to a picture of their service member.

8. Try a Daddy (or Mommy) Doll.

Many moms swear by a Daddy Doll. Several companies on the web provide a service by which you can have a photo of your service member turned into a doll for your child.

9. Tell a story.

Early childhood experts often point out how very young children seek warm and close relationships with their caregivers through everyday routines like feeding and cuddling and reading stories. Use your photos to put together a story about your deployed service member. One mom wrote a book that helped her young daughter understand her father's absence.

10. Send pictures and video to deployed service members.

Some military members love to get lots of pictures and videos. Others can hardly look at them because it hurts to know what you are missing. Figure out what your deployed service member likes best and send that -- and don't spend one minute thinking about what everyone else does.

11. Adopt United Through Reading as your best friend.

United Through Reading is a nonprofit devoted to connecting deployed parents and kids through books. They will come to your command and record your service member reading a book. Then they send the child a package with the book and the video. One of my favorite videos ever is of a little baby squealing at the sound of Daddy's voice on a United Through Reading video.

12. Put your hopes in reintegration.

Our audience can come up with a million things you can do during deployment to keep service members and kids close. But then they end up at the same truth: There really isn't a way to help a baby that young remember their absent parent.

The baby probably won't "know" their deployed parent right away or jump into their arms. The baby's brain is not built that way.

And that's OK.

Most of the things military dads can do for their kids happen after the deployment.

That isn’t comforting when you are smack dab in the middle of a deployment. When you are in the middle of the deployment, that seems like deployment is all there is. That isn't true.

When you are worrying too much about the deployment, think of the big picture. Your baby and your service member will almost certainly share a lifetime together. The baby won't remember this deployment. You will. Your service member will. But the baby won't. Babies have a marvelous way of starting fresh.

So whenever your service member gets home, trust that will be the beginning of their relationship. It may take a little time, a little effort, a little patience. It will all come together in the end.

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