Study finds postpartum depression isn't just a mother's ill
4% of fathers also found to suffer; children affected
Mothers are often watched closely for signs of depression after giving birth, and new research suggests that some fathers also have trouble adjusting emotionally to a new baby at home. Scientists report today in the Lancet medical journal that postnatal depression affects a significant number of fathers and also may have lasting effects on their children.
While postnatal depression affected 10 percent of mothers in the study, 4 percent of fathers also reported feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and irritability that emerged within eight weeks after the birth. When children from the depressed fathers' families were followed several years later, 17 percent exhibited various psychological symptoms.
''Behavioral and emotional problems in children were approximately doubled if their fathers had depressive symptoms early in their lives," said Paul Ramchandani of Oxford University in England, who led the research team.
The scientists monitored the psychological health of 8,430 fathers and their family members through periodic questionnaires. The results are the latest to emerge from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a project initiated in the early 1990s to collect comprehensive data on a large population sample in the Bristol area of the United Kingdom.
Postpartum depression in new mothers typically begins two to three weeks after giving birth, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. While the exact causes of this condition are unknown, research suggests that a combination of hormonal and psychological factors is to blame, compounded by the stress of being a new parent.
''The standard predictor of depression in the postnatal period is depression in the prenatal period," said Thomas O'Connor, a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester and an author of the study.
The causes of depression in new fathers are even less clear. William Pollack, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard's McLean Hospital, believes that both social and hormonal factors may play a role. He noted that preliminary findings from animal and human studies suggest that levels of certain hormones may change in fathers after their children are born.
While a substantial body of evidence suggests that postpartum depression in mothers adversely affects child development, researchers have only recently considered the possibility that fathers' emotional states may also be significant.
Ramchandani's research indicates that postnatal depression in men and women may have different effects on children. Depression in mothers has emotional and behavioral effects on both daughters and sons, whereas depression in fathers had a greater effect on their sons, his work suggests. At age 3 1/2, the sons of the depressed fathers were more likely to have behavior problems.
The authors offered several explanations for why children would have behavioral problems years after the postpartum period. One possibility is that when fathers are depressed they become less involved in caring for their families. Psychosocial development may be affected by less responsive parenting during the first year of life. Also, the authors suggested that genes could account for both a new father's depression and his child's behavior problems.
Because the study evaluated children during only their preschool years, future work will be needed to see whether these effects persist into later childhood.
''There is a good deal of interest now in whether early experiences have persistent effects on long-term development," said O'Connor.