The level of engagement fathers have with their children in the first months of life may influence the development of behavioural problems later.

Fathers who were more involved early on had children with fewer problems at 12 months, while those who were remote had children who were less stable and more disturbed.

It is the first time the origin of behavioural problems has been traced to such an early age – before three months – and suggests early intervention could prevent difficulties in later life.

The findings were based on a study of 192 families from two maternity units in the UK, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The results are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The researchers, led by Paul Ramchandani of the University of Oxford, found interaction with the father tended to be more important for boys than girls.

The lack of paternal engagement could reflect wider problems between the father and his partner. It was also possible the infant's disturbed behaviour was an attempt to win attention.