Every once in a while, during those first heady days after the birth of my first child, I'd catch myself staring at her, trancelike, marveling at every little thing she did. Of course, it would be quite a while before she actually did anything truly remarkable, but somehow, I found everything miraculous, from the smell of her hair and her delicate hands (complete with outrageously sharp fingernails), to the snarfles and soft breathing when she was awake and the look of pure peace when she slept.
After a few days of this, I was snapped out of my reverie by a sharp jolt of reality: There was a lot more to being a dad than just looking at my baby. If I really wanted to build the kind of relationship with her that I'd dreamed of, I was going to have to get in there and get my hands dirty (metaphorically, of course. I'd already done a ton of diaper changing...). The problem was that, never having spent much time around babies, I had absolutely no idea what to do. Not being one to ask for help (I know, I know, it's a guy thing), there was really only one way to learn what I needed to learn. So I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and jumped in.
Within minutes, I had an important epiphany: Since my daughter was just as clueless as I was, she was incredibly forgiving. Over the first few weeks of her life I made dozens of mistakes (none life- or health-threatening, I'm happy to say). But I also discovered a few simple ways of interacting with her that she really seemed to enjoy.
The first discovery was that she loved it when I held her. She generally preferred my arms, but after they went numb and my back started aching, she was perfectly happy in a front pack. She also loved it when I talked to her. At first I felt a little silly about the whole thing—she clearly had no idea what I was saying—but my voice seemed to soothe her. I'd tell her about my day, about what was happening in the news, and what we were seeing when we went out for walks. Sometimes, if I paused for more than a few seconds, she'd stare at me with those bright little eyes and I could swear that she was thinking "Okay, and then what?"
One important piece of advice: Because babies' heads are relatively large (one-quarter of their body size at birth vs. one-seventh by the time they're adults) and their neck muscles aren't very well developed, their heads tend to be pretty floppy for the first few months. So it's critical to be sure to support your baby's head—from behind—at all times, and to avoid sudden or jerky motions.
Another major discovery was that changing her diapers was actually a great way for the two of us to connect. It also gave me an opportunity to rub her soft belly, tickle her knees, and kiss her tiny fingers. In the early days, I was changing her diapers every two or three hours and got so good at it that I once tried to do it with my eyes closed. Not the brightest idea I've ever had. To start with, the sudden rush of fresh air made her spray me. And I should have picked a diaper with a lower degree of difficulty (in other words, one that was just wet instead of poopy). Fortunately, I didn't make any mistakes that a shower and a few loads of laundry couldn't correct.
Like a lot of new dads, I didn't know much about child development. And I was, frankly, a little disappointed when I found out it would be a long, long time before my daughter would be able to play catch with me. But I learned fairly early on that there were other ways to play with her. I read stories, played peek-a-boo, made faces, and even gently rolled around on the floor with her. The more encouraging I was—whether it was verbally or with smiles and laughter—the more she liked it. But her attention span was shorter than I thought (or hoped) it would be. Five minutes or so was her limit. After that, she'd start crying or fussing, or simply look at me like she was bored out of her mind.
Thinking back on all this with a few years of distance, it was definitely a little scary—and there's no shortage of "shoulda, coulda, woulda." But I know that what my daughter and I did together when she was a baby has made a huge difference in my relationship with her.