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By Paul Raeburn

Military dads who are separated from their children for extended periods can feel a sense of disconnection that’s hard to reverse once they come home. But a new phone app called Mobile Dad — developed and tested by University of Michigan researchers — is helping to keep fathers engaged while they’re away and to ease the transition back into family life.

Mobile Dad provides fathers with regular updates on milestones their kids should be experiencing and offers suggestions for how to handle a variety of situations, such things as coping with crying babies or what to do if they feel themselves slipping into depression.

Shawna J. Lee, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan, and her colleagues came up with the idea of the app at the request of the U.S. Air Force, which is concerned that fathers’ emotional struggles could affect their work.

Mobile Dad “pushes information out to dads twice a week,” Lee says. “It’s a little snippet about your baby’s development. If you have a six-month-old, that’s about the time they start eating solid food, [so] it will say ‘visit the mobile app to find out more about solid food.’”

Mobile Dad, which has so far been available only to select families for testing, will be available to the public in April, Lee said.

Lee said she and her colleagues also tried to make the app useful for dads who happen to be home, building in information on activities and suggestions for play.

In a departure from usual academic practice, the researchers hired a comedian to help with humorous "one-liners,” most of which remained in the final product. One example: “Babies’ stomachs are tiny--about the size of a walnut. Pro-tip: Don’t feed your baby a walnut. Babies are not good at using nutcrackers.” (O.K., it’s not "Seinfeld." But compared to a lot of academic language, it’s not bad.) 

Mobile Dad was tested with military fathers in focus groups, and it was designed to provide exactly the information fathers said they wanted, Lee said.

One of the first things she and her colleagues discovered in the work with Air Force families is that fathers can feel separation from their kids even when they are living at home, because of the stresses and demands of their jobs. Mothers can experience the same things, but research has shown that mothers are less likely than fathers to disengage; it’s the fathers who especially need help.

In a study published in February in the journal Health and Social Work, Tova B. Walsh of the University of Wisconsin and her colleagues found that fathers expressed a variety of needs, including “a need for support in expressing emotion, nurturing, and managing their tempers.” They also found that fathers were “receptive to opportunities to engage in parenting interventions.”

Forty-four percent of U.S. service members are parents, and most of them are fathers, Walsh reported. And many of those parents return from deployments with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression symptoms, substance use, and other problems, Walsh wrote.

One of the problems with fathers’ separations is that they could increase the risk of child abuse and neglect, Lee says, noting that child abuse in the military has been an important concern. Last year, for example, Army Times reported that the Army was experiencing a hidden epidemic of child abuse, with nearly 30,000 children suffering abuse or neglect during the past decade.

Lee says that most of the research on parenting has been done on mothers, she says, with far less attention paid to fathers. She is hoping to learn how to increase the engagement of military fathers — and, eventually, other fathers, too. “We hope that down the road this might prevent child abuse and neglect,” she says.

Capt. Tim McCullough, an Army Judge Advocate in Savannah, Ga., tried Mobile Dad while his family was in Texas and he was away for five months in Virginia, completing his legal training.

It wasn’t his first separation. His first child, a boy, was seven months old when McCullough left the U.S. for 10 months in Iraq. “It was rough,” he says. “I missed him learning to walk and learning to talk. His first birthday — all those firsts.”

McCullough had it better than some others. He was at a base that had Internet, and he could call home on Skype almost every day. “That made the reintegration part a lot easier,” he says now. “He recognized me; he knew my voice.” Even so, it wasn’t easy.

In trying out Mobile Dad, McCullough said he found the app’s information on child development “very helpful,” and said that, among other things, it “reminded him how kids are different.”

“You expect your second one to follow after your first, and when that doesn’t happen, you are reminded that each kid develops differently,” he said.

Even when he was home, he said, it was “good to be reminded of what you’re seeing on a daily basis” in your kids. 

Paul Raeburn is the author of the forthcoming book, "Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We've Overlooked."