March 6 (UPI) -- Infants who more closely resemble their unwed fathers are likely to get more attention and end up healthier, researchers concluded in a data analysis.
Researchers at Binghamton University in New York and Southern Illinois University analyzed data from the Fragile Families Child Wellbeing Study of children born between 1998 and 2000 to unmarried parents in large U.S. cities.
Roughly three-quarters of births to parents participating in the original study were to non-married couples, and all of the babies in the 715 families lived only with their mother.
In their analysis, published in the Journal of Health Economics, the researchers report that children who looked like their father at birth were more likely to receive positive parenting and that fathers spent an average of 2.5 more days per month with their babies.
The researchers say the findings could help medical providers better identify newborns who are in need of an intervention.
"Fathers are important in raising a child, and it manifests itself in the health of the child," Solomon Polachek, a distinguished research professor of economics at Binghamton, said in a press release Monday.
Polachek, working with researcher Marlon Tracey from Southern Illinois University, classified a baby as resembling the father if both parents separately reported in private that the baby looks wholly or partially like the dad.
Researchers found a 2.7 percent lower probability of asthma episodes, 5.4 percent fewer visits to health practitioners for illness, 9.1 percent fewer visits to the emergency room and 22.3 percent reduction in length of hospital stays.
An extra day per month by a visiting father looking like their child appears to enhance infant health by just over 10 percent of a standard deviation.
One year after birth, fathers that look like their child spent an average of 2.5 more days per month with their babies than fathers who didn't resemble their offspring, according to the research.
"Those fathers that perceive the baby's resemblance to them are more certain the baby is theirs, and thus spend more time with the baby," Polachek said.
The researchers theorized why this happens.
"The main explanation is that frequent father visits allow for greater parental time for care-giving and supervision, and for information gathering about child health and economic needs," Polachek said. "It's been said that 'it takes a village' but my coauthor, Marlon Tracey, and I find that having an involved father certainly helps."
The researchers advocated that the fathers engage in positive parenting, but also say that more research is necessary to understand why the health benefits appear, and whether encouraging more involvement of fathers could help families where biological parents are not separated.
"It is unclear to what extent our finding that paternal time-investment improves child health in at-risk families can be generalized," Polachek and Tracey wrote in the study. "The health benefits we find may be due to the specific circumstances and behavioral traits of parents in at-risk families. Although at the very least our findings can inform policies related to U.S. poverty, it is useful for future research to explore whether similar child health gains from paternal time-investment can be realized in more intact families."