This study sought to examine whether an early childhood obesity prevention intervention incorporating a parent behavioural modelling component, altered obesity risk behaviours of fathers. The findings show that the intervention, with mothers as the point of contact, had no beneficial impact on the diet, physical activity and sedentary behaviours of fathers. The presence of a beneficial outcome in mothers (who were the point of contact for this intervention) but not fathers, supports the notion that direct contact in an intervention may be necessary to change fathers’ health behaviours.
Reasons for the absence of any impact on fathers’ obesity-related behaviours may have included paternal attitudes towards infant diet and physical activity behaviours (i.e. they may perceive this to be a maternal domain), that the intervention materials were not shared or discussed with them by their partners or that simply, it was construed by fathers as irrelevant to them. Qualitative work is needed to gain an understanding of fathers’ perceptions about their role in influencing children’s eating and activity behaviours. Whilst qualitative understandings of father’s perceptions of their roles in the first year of life exist [46–48], qualitative understandings of mother’s perceptions of father’s roles in these domains would also be valuable.
The present study identified four dietary patterns in fathers. Common characteristics were identified between the present findings and a study involving Australian women aged 25–30 and 50–55 years . That study used comparable methodology but included dietary patterns with a higher level of detail regarding food items as a higher number of food groups were considered in that study. Two identified patterns labelled ‘Processed meat, meat and takeaway’ and ‘High-fat and sugar foods’, were similar to patterns we identified (namely ‘High-fat foods’ and ‘High-energy snack and processed foods’).
International studies have also shown some consistency with these findings. Crozier et al, identified two main patterns in their UK study involving 6125 non-pregnant women aged 20–34 years ; ‘Prudent’ and ‘High-energy’. The patterns identified in the present study, ‘Fruits’ and ‘Potatoes and vegetables’ have similar characteristics to the ‘Prudent’ pattern. Conversely, patterns with high loadings for red and processed meats, refined grains, and processed foods have often been labelled as ‘Western’ , similar to the ‘High-fat foods’ and ‘High-energy snack and processed foods’ patterns identified in the present study.
Literature suggests an important role of fathers in children’s development; however scant evidence exists regarding the influence of fathers on the obesity risk-related behaviours of very young children . Maternal associations with young children’s diet and physical activity behaviours through role modelling and other practices has been widely reported [11, 15, 16, 51], whereas reports on the paternal associations with these behaviours has occurred with less frequency and generally only in school-aged children or adolescents . In one of the few studies to examine the associations between child behaviours and both parents, Moore et al, in their cross-sectional analysis of data from the Framingham Children’s Study, described associations between children and both parents. They reported that children of active mothers were twice as likely to be active as children of inactive mothers; whilst having an active father was associated with children who were 3.5 times more active . Based on these results, it may be that stronger intervention effects could be achieved if interventions are delivered to both parents.
The findings in the present study provide important insights into first-time fathers’ dietary, physical activity and sedentary behaviours and highlight that overweight and obesity is highly prevalent in this group. Whilst the obesity risk behaviours of men and fathers in general have been reported previously [2, 52, 53], the subgroup of first-time fathers has not, to our knowledge, been studied. The diet, physical activity and sedentary behaviour profiles of first-time fathers described in this study are an important snap-shot of the behaviours first-time fathers display to their children. Greater knowledge of these behaviours will allow the design of appropriately targeted, family-based interventions concerning the health behaviours of infants and young children. Family-based interventions targeting both parents, that influence the development of healthy family physical activity and food environments for infants and young children, may prove to be important in addressing childhood obesity levels.
Our investigation was novel in its focus on first-time fathers. Study strengths included a randomized design, high response and retention rates and the large percentage of fathers that completed data collection despite their partners being the point of contact. There were some limitations to the study that should be noted. Factor analysis inherently involves some subjectivity, however, a review by Newby and colleagues reported considerable reproducibility of dietary patterns across most studies in adults . Furthermore, since identifying the effects of the intervention was the goal of this study, the subjective nature of dietary pattern identification is unlikely to have affected our findings. The ability of the FFQ to detect change is unclear. The FFQ has been used to previously to assess dietary change in large intervention studies  and whilst it has been validated for dietary information collection, there is potential uncertainty around measuring dietary change.
Dietary, physical activity and sedentary behaviour data was self-reported or possibly reported by mothers on behalf of fathers and therefore susceptible to social desirability bias and imprecision, however the tools used for collection of these data have been previously validated [36, 38]. As discussed in the methods, we have no measure of the extent to which the intervention was delivered to fathers by their partners. This may have impacted the findings seen here.