A child with two parents wanting to play a part in those crucial early years is lucky, but how can a new dad find the necessary support to help him settle into the role?

AS A chef, Neil Ferguson was used to spinning plates. But when he decided to retrain in childcare while juggling part-time study with the full-time demands of caring for his family, reality hit hard. He was happy to look after daughters Katie, 12, and Fiona, 7, as well as his wife when she suffered post-natal depression after Fiona's birth. But Neil himself has fibromyalgia, an acute auto immune disorder that can leave him washed out with fatigue and pain, so feeding, changing and

• Fathers Network Scotland founder and chair David Drysdale, pictured with his son Manow

lifting sometimes felt like a battle he could never win. "I didn't

see it coming. Things are settled now for us, but I

couldhavedonewithhelp at thattime, evenjust to

let off steam. I just kept chasing myself."

Fast forward seven years and Neil is the

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Fast forward seven years and Neil is the male parent support worker at Dad's Work, the only dedicated advice and support service for fathers in East Lothian. His job is to make life easier for fathers and their families in Musselburgh and the surrounding areas of Wallyford, Prestonpans and Tranent. The service operates from a lived-in office in a housing estate.

Neil has been there since the organisation started, with just four dads. It now supports more than 40 each month. The service was rolled out after research found that fathers were not attending parents' groups in East Lothian. They were hanging on by a thread with no real support. Dads' groups from Edinburgh were going through the same experiences. Neil says: "I think there is still a bias towards mum being the best parent."

But they opted not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and they have now formed a national charity, by dads for dads.

Research out last week showed up a 6 per cent rise in stay-at-home fathers – 600,000 men. It's probably nearer 5 per cent and when you take a closer look, not a reliable measure of the real numbers. But it does point to a growing trend. More fathers are taking on the role of primary carer. Are parent services doing enough to support them?

Kevin Young, co-ordinator at Dad's Work, says: "We find that health professionals and children's services often end up excluding dads. They are not used to working with them. One father told me that the health visitor had asked his partner why dad was never around. He had been hiding in the bedroom because the first time she came round the door was shut in his face. It was clear she was there just for mum."

Kevin is also secretary for Fathers Network Scotland. He admits men can be reluctant to ask for help, but says men who don't go to parent groups lack self-confidence. "Men find it easier to talk to men. They share a bond of understanding and can talk about their experiences as fathers."

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Dad's Work has joined forces with Circle Scotland, One Parent Families Scotland and the Lone Fathers project at Surestart Midlothian to set up Fathers Network Scotland, a charity that will put fathers in touch with groups in their area and get dads involved in helping to make health and children's services more accessible for mums and dads.

At Dad's Work weekly drop-in sessions, the tea is poured and the men give each other parenting advice about everything from difficult behaviour to bedtime routines. They learn practical tips at workshops ranging from conflict resolution and child development to cooking. And as well as one-to-one counselling, fathers who are struggling to get into a routine can get hands-on support in their living rooms. The fathers range from a 16-year-old with one child, to a man in his sixties. Most are unemployed, living at home with children and partner, and have children from different relationships. Kevin says: "Add to that poor health, addiction or just low self-esteem. But despite their different issues, over three-quarters of the fathers are the primary carers for their children. All work hard at being good dads."

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David Lawson, 38, thought he could manage to care for firstborn Jamie while wife Jacqueline worked. But when he found himself phoning her work every few hours, he realised he was struggling to cope.

"At first I thought I must be the only guy having problems looking after my child. I didn't want to ask for help; I thought I had to be strong and manly." It was testing from the start, as Jacqueline suffered post-natal depression and Jamie had symptoms of meningitis at birth. Now at 20 months, Jamie suffers from frequent bouts of infection. This week he has a chesty cough. "I get sick with worry about him sometimes," says David.

After a few months David worked up the courage to go along to a parents' support group. "I tried two groups, one at a community centre and one at a local church, but it was just mums. I found it hard to come out of my shell. Most of the time when you find parent services, you find they are for mum." The health visitor referred David to Dad's Work a year ago and he has been going to the weekly drop-in ever since.

Earlier this month, he was one of the first men in East Lothian to do a course on how to talk to their children about sexual health. "Seeing how other fathers deal with their kids has helped my relationship with Ashleigh, my step-daughter. We speak to each other now."

But David still lacks confidence when it comes to Jamie. "I am doing classes and it's my goal to be able to stay out with him at lunchtime instead of having to go home. I am too scared to feed him in public, in case I muck it up. Everything I do with Jamie is a goal. The first time we went to soft play was a big step. The dads stick together and we can rely on each other. And Jamie plays with the other children. We are definitely doing a lot better as a family."

Research by Children in Scotland has revealed that it's not just fathers in Edinburgh and the Lothians who feel left out. Despite a legal duty to target both mums and dads in parenting services under the Gender Equality Duty, working with fathers is a novelty in Scotland. Children in Scotland asked 32 local authorities and 14 NHS boards about what they were doing to support fathers. Dr Katrina Allen, who led the research, says: "In the health services men don't get much of a mention as fathers, other than how they can support their partner if she is breastfeeding. Our research also revealed most fathers respond better to dedicated fathers' groups, initially at least.

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"Fathers need to see services from ante-natal care through to the early years as something they can be part of from the start. Health services are staffed mostly by women so there is an uncertainty about how to work with fathers. Flexible hours and more male staff could help. But I don't think fathers necessarily need male staff; they need better understanding of fathers' needs."

David Drysdale, chairman of Fathers Network Scotland, says: "Whether it's stay-at-home fathers, working dads, single dads, fathers who look after their children for short periods, what's important is we make sure services are for families. Fathers need to be supported as parents, no matter what their circumstances."

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Promoting existing dads' groups will reach fathers who are feeling isolated. But, David points out, there is a need for longer-term change. "Fathers-only groups have a huge impact and we will make sure we connect fathers to any available services in their area, if they are available. These groups need to be complemented by better training for staff in mainstream services, from ante-natal through to post-natal care. There is a growing interest in working more with dads and we need to run with that. It's a big part of why we set up, to help agencies reach out to fathers. If there are gaps, we are encouraging fathers to fill the gaps."

The organisation is advertising this week for Scotland's first male ante-natal teacher, on behalf of the National Childbirth Trust, the UK's biggest charity working with parents. And David says they are developing classes for NCT to make ante-natal classes more father-friendly, based on the first ante-natal classes in Scotland, pioneered in West Lothian.

Michelle Davidson, Parent Education Co-ordinator in West Lothian, runs the dedicated ante-natal class for fathers. Since Dads2B was launched in 2004, more than 1,000 fathers have finished the how-to courses on feeding, baby massage, baby resuscitation and relationships. "These services need to be expanded, especially in the post-natal period. We need more training and resources put into parent education but I don't think fathers need different resources. We need to build confidence in the staff who often work in a female dominated environment, so they know how to include dads."

Derek Francis attended Dads2B last year. "New mothers get the best deal out of becoming a parent, with longer maternity leave, getting to spend time with the newborn, going to toddler groups and most importantly, getting support from others in the same boat. The prospect of being a dad is daunting. The class helped ease anxieties. Every dad to be in the room felt the same way. We bonded at the time and because mums in the area already knew each other, there is now a good network for the children."

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