We hear a lot about post-natal depression (PND). It is an important conversation, and one that needs to be continually before us so we can be supportive of mums who are struggling.
Research shows that children of mothers who experience psychological distress and depression tend not to do as well as those born to mums who are doing well. They experience difficulties in learning, cognition, social skills, and behavioural and emotional regulation, among other things. This, of course, only adds to the reasons we need to do all we can to support families who struggle under the weight of depression.
However, fathers experience postnatal depression too. Yet we tend not to talk so much about the struggle new dads face, nor do we discuss how paternal depression can affect children.
Paternal postnatal depression
The peak time for dads to develop a form of PND is between three and six months post baby birth. It appears that there is a relationship between a father’s mental health and the wellbeing of babies.
There are a host of risk factors, too, that increase the chances that dad may experience depression in the weeks and months preceding and following the birth of a baby. Some of these are as simple as having a fussy baby who is not sleeping, or who cries a lot. (Yes, that can be most babies, but lack of sleep really affects wellbeing.). If dad is a substance user or abuser, this increases his risk of depression.
Other risk factors that are associated with dads and depression after a baby is born include:
- The quality of the relationship between partners. Better relationships reduce the likelihood of depressive symptoms
- His partner’s mental health. If she is not doing well, chances are that he is more likely to struggle. This is a BIG one.
- His previous experience of depression.
- The level of support the family receives from friends and relatives.
In other words, the quality of support in the relationship and the wider family, along with his previous mental health are big predictors of paternal PND. We don’t really know how many new dads experience PND, though some estimates place it around 10%. However, the impact this can have on children is surprisingly large.
How paternal PND affects children
Research shows that as a dad’s PND becomes increasingly severe, so too does children’s behaviour. Dads with PND have fussier infants. Depressed dads are less involved with their children. This can potentially impact on behaviour. For example, one study indicated that severe PND in dads was associated with high behavioural and emotional problems in their children (esp. their sons) at age 3.5 and again at 7.
Some other concerning outcomes include:
- Dads who are depressed interact with their babies through reading, singing, and telling stories less than other dads. And they do it less than mums who are depressed too. This might give us some suggestion as to why children of depressed dads are at greater risk of delayed language development.
- Dads with depression are less expressive in their voice with their infants, and some research has linked this with infant cognitive delays.
And in a study that was published recently, researchers discovered that ‘sad dads’ simply didn’t interact with their children at the same level as other dads.
What can we do?
PND for dads is real, and is being seen at increasing levels. The first thing we need to do is make sure men know that PND for guys is a legitimate mental illness. This means helping them understand what it looks like, and how it feels.
Second, fathers seem to do better when their wives/partners invite them to be involved in caring for their infants. As they develop stronger bonds with baby, the risk of depression dissipates – but the support has to be there from mum.
Third, because alcohol and other drug use is a risk factor, as is the quality of the husband/wife/partner relationship, it’s best to stay away from the grog and drugs, and do everything possible to support the couple relationship during this delicate time.
Fourth, sleep is such a precious commodity and both parents need it to stay mentally healthy. (This is obviously complicated, but it can’t be overlooked.)
And finally, if they’re feeling lousy, men need to know it’s ok to speak up, visit the doctor or a mental-health practitioner, and get help.