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Q: I am a new father, and I just have no idea. I'm lost about infants. I'm lost about toddlers. I'm lost. Please help.
-- James Maxwell, Irving, Texas
A: You can do it.
Whether it's bathing an infant, consoling a toddler or teaching a 3-year-old to share, parents and experts from around the country say dads can do a fantastic job.
The most important requirement is the desire.
"Being a new father may sound like the hardest thing a male will have to do until you do it," says Tad Kern, a father from Tempe, Ariz. "My advice is relax and trust your instincts. Dads have them too."
Right from the start, fathers should get in there and get hands-on exposure, says Rick Cohen, a father from St. Louis Park, Minn.
"Pick the infant up a lot, and do physical things," Mr. Cohen says. "Bounce them and study their facial expressions. If you work on it, you can usually tell what they are thinking, what they are interested in and what they want at any given moment."
"Men tend to get closed out as the moms and the grandmothers take over," says Jim Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York. "A dance gets set up between the mother and the baby, and it's easy to find yourself on the sidelines."
To disguise their fears and save face, men pretend they aren't interested. Or faced with seemingly more competent and confident females, they just give up and resolve to re-enter the scene when the child is older. Researchers now suggest this is a big mistake.
"I can't urge fathers enough not to wait until their children are 5 or 6 to get involved," says Aaron Hass, Ph.D., author of "The Gift of Fatherhood" (Fireside, $11; $14 Canada).
For men who want to avoid this pitfall and break the stereotype of the uninvolved father, there are several concrete steps to make the process easier. Here are suggestions from parents and authorities:
* Discuss your fears and concerns. Tell your wife how you feel, says Sabrina Michelson, a mother from Phoenix, Ariz. Find other new fathers to talk to, suggests Maggi Williams, a reader from Minneapolis, Minn.
* Think about the kind of father you want to be. Let your spouse know upfront how much involvement you want and expect to have. Remember that with privilege comes responsibility.
"Most fathers see themselves as a helper, not as a co-parent," says Dr. Hass, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
* When taking responsibilities, defend your right to carry them out in your own way. One father gained a sense of control by having his own job -- the nightly bath.
"The dad needs to have the freedom to do it without mom hovering over him," says Jill Gross of Roselle, Ill. "Moms need to let go a little bit and let dads do it their own way."
While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 5. Ms. Mills and her husband live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 3-year-old daughter.