by Jodi Picoult
Reviewed by the BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board

One of my clearest memories of early motherhood involves early fatherhood. I never would have expected my husband — a champion coach in the delivery room — to be so indifferent to the trophy we were taking home. Sure, he loved our son, but he insisted it wasn’t the same for him as it was for me. I got to feed Kyle, spend the day with Kyle, rock him to sleep; my connection to our new son was so profound that he might as well have still been linked by an umbilical cord. On the other hand, my husband would come home from work and seem completely baffled by the baby.

Well, Tim found out quickly what most moms know from the very start: namely, that a baby’s got charm and grace galore. I’d hand him Kyle to watch for a moment, and come back to find the two of them grinning like fools on the couch.

Now, after having three children, I realize my husband was just shy. Taking care of a newborn is often elementally reduced to feeding and comforting, and some new dads don’t know if they’ve got the right equipment for the job. The real secret of male-bonding with a baby is realizing that you’re not supposed to try to be another mother. Your child already has one of those, and what she really needs is for you to be yourself. Still feeling a little shy? Try these break-the-ice activities.

Give a midnight bottle

After I began to supplement breastfeeding with formula, my husband offered to get up for the middle-of-the-night banquet. Okay, so maybe I bullied him into it at first, but before long he told me he enjoyed having that time with the baby. No one else around, crickets chirping outside, and bizarre infomercials on TV. Once, I overheard my husband having a 3 a.m. conversation with a sound-asleep Kyle. “You know what, buddy?” he was saying. “We’re the only two people in the universe who know that they aired that same show four nights in a row.”

Roughhouse (within reason)

Studies have shown that mothers and fathers hold their babies in very different ways. Moms are more likely to cuddle; dads tend to get a little more physical. You should never shake a baby, but you can certainly stimulate her muscles. If your child is old enough to sit up, she might like being tossed gently in the air, or getting bounced on a knee, or being carried beneath the arm like a football … things that Mom isn’t as likely to do, but that are sure to bring squeals of delight.

Have a staring contest

Prowess is a guy thing, right? Lest you believe that little baby of yours is a pushover, engage her in a time-honored ritual of seeing who’ll blink first. She may surprise you. Babies love to contemplate faces, and chances are that before she gets bored you’ll have dropped your gaze, wondering where she got that incredible dimple, or whether her ears look like your mom’s or your wife’s.

Play kangaroo

My firstborn was a colicky baby who was never happy unless someone was holding him. At the end of the day, Tim used to come to the rescue by strapping on a Snugli and going about his business — raking leaves, setting the table, tossing a ball for the dog — all with Kyle cuddled against his belly.

Take a bath together

A new dad we know dreaded the nights when it was his turn to bathe his son — the combination of screaming baby and slippery skin made him nervous. One night, he simply stripped down himself and took the infant into the tub with him. Lo and behold, the baby was calm for the entire duration of the bath. Being snuggled against his father’s chest made all the difference.

Read the sports page

Aloud. Let’s face it: Goodnight Moon can get you only so far. After the 1,500th reading of the classic book, my husband finally threw in the towel. I walked by the nursery at bedtime to hear him very sweetly crooning the details of a Patriots game to Kyle. The baby loved every minute of it … it didn’t matter what his father was reading, just so long as he was.

Set a table for two

If your baby is old enough to be eating solid food, then you might as well be the maitre d’. It’s entertaining — see the food go in, watch it come right back out!

Change a diaper

Talk about bonding at the earthiest level — with babies, the bottom line (no pun intended) often involves cleaning up a mess. During a change you get to touch the baby, and talk to him, but it’s sometimes hard to see a silver lining when a soggy lining is so much more evident. Still, fair’s fair. My friend Mary’s husband once asked her what she did all day with the baby, so she lined up 18 dirty diapers in neat, plastic piles on the front stoop for him to see when he came home.

Be there for a cold or fever

Nobody wants their baby to get sick, but there’s nothing like an illness to prove how much the little guy really needs you. A night spent rocking a sick child will make you painfully, preciously aware of what parenting is all about.

Bench press

The bad news is that once you’re a parent, you don’t have much time to get to the gym. The good news is that you have just acquired a fabulous set of hand weights, approximately 7 to 20 pounds. Once our kids’ necks could support the weight of their heads, Tim would balance their bodies on his palms and then carefully curl them, bench them, whatever struck his fancy … and both his biceps and the babies loved it.

Be a texture board

One of the greatest attributes of men is that they feel great (or they probably wouldn’t be daddies in the first place). From the rough shadow of beard to a silky moustache to a crewcut hairdo, a father is a tactile delight. Beware: Little fingers can get a punishing grip on chest hair.

Take pictures

Nothing makes as flawless a subject as your own child. An added benefit? All the grandmas and grandpas and uncles and cousins who are the recipients of the prints can’t help but notice what a great time you’re having being a dad.