Although the birth of a child brings with it many joys, it is not without its stressful moments. Feeling overwhelmed and having mood swings are common in about 80% of women in the first few weeks after the birth of a child. If the symptoms do not subside after a few weeks, a new mother could be experiencing something more serious— postpartum depression .

Postpartum depression is a major form of depression and may include symptoms such as:

  • Anger and frustration
  • Sadness and crying
  • Tiredness, inability to sleep (insomnia) or both
  • Fear of hurting yourself or your baby
  • Impaired thinking or concentration
  • Lack of joy in life
  • Significant weight loss or gain

Approximately 10% to 20% of all new mothers get postpartum depression, which usually occurs during the first year after birth. It not only affects the mother’s well-being, but may adversely affect her newborn child. The first year of life is a critical time for the mother-child relationship and for the child’s cognitive development. Previous studies have found that untreated postpartum depression can put infants at risk for developmental delays.

The evidence is abundant about the existence and effect of maternal postnatal depression. But what about fathers—do they experience depression after the birth of a child? And if they do, does it have an impact on their newborn? A study published in the June 25, 2005 issue of The Lancet assessed paternal postnatal depression and evaluated the effect it may have on a child’s emotional and behavioral development.

About the Study

The study participants were recruited from a larger study set up to collect information on children and their parents from early pregnancy through childhood. The researchers sent questionnaires to mothers and fathers at regular points during and after pregnancy. The questionnaires were designed to assess a wide range of factors, including physical and psychological development, psychosocial risk factors, and environmental toxins. For this study, researchers specifically focused on depression in the mother or father during the postnatal period and the subsequent emotional and behavioral adjustment of the child.

Using the questionnaires, both mothers and fathers were assessed for depression at eight weeks after the birth of their baby. At 21 months, only fathers were evaluated. Disturbances in the children’s emotional and behavioral development were assessed at 42 months (or 3 ½ years) through questionnaires filled out by their mother. The areas of development assessed were:

  • Emotional problems
  • Conduct problems (e.g., defiant behavior or acting out)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Prosocial behaviors (e.g., caring behaviors toward others and concern over the distress of someone else)

Questionnaires were sent to more than 13,000 women. Information and analyses were available for 8,431 fathers, 11,833 mothers, and 10,024 children.

The Findings

The authors found that 10% of mothers and four percent of fathers experienced major depression at eight weeks. A father’s depression was strongly associated with an increased risk of a child experiencing emotional and conduct problems, as well as hyperactivity. However, it did not appear to effect prosocial behavior. Similarly, maternal depression was also associated with an increased risk of emotional problems, conduct problems, and hyperactivity, but had no effect on prosocial behavior.

Interestingly, a father’s postnatal depression was associated with an increase in problems in male children but not female children, whereas maternal depression had similar effects on both boys and girls. Additionally, the association between a father’s depression and his son’s problems was more pronounced for behavioral symptoms (conduct and hyperactivity) than for emotional symptoms (worry and sadness).

How Does This Affect You?

Depression after the birth of a child is thought of as a women’s disease, with the hormone changes associated with pregnancy often cited as a possible cause. But, many factors can contribute to depression at this time, including the intense changes associated with having children and the increased responsibilities compounded by everyday life stresses.

Contrary to popular belief, women are not the only ones susceptible to postnatal depression—this study shows that dads can get it too. And this depression can have a significant impact on his children—when a father experiences postnatal depression, his son is almost three times as likely to have behavioral problems.

Help is available. Postnatal depression can be treated successfully through counseling, support groups, and medications. This study’s findings suggest that dads, not just moms, should be aware of depression after childbirth and encouraged to seek treatment.