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Postpartum depression in young fathers

May 28, 2014

A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that young fathers, those who became dads at an average age of 25 years, have a 68% increase in depression symptoms within the first five years of becoming dads. This applied to young dads who lived with their children and their wives or girlfriends. Dads who lived away from their children and older fathers did not show that same increase in rates of depression. So why might “postpartum depression” happen to dads? Isn’t that a “hormonal thing” that happens to new moms? But now that we know that this is an issue, can we and should we do something about it?

What could cause postpartum depression in dads?

The study carefully made clear that these results only show an association between becoming a dad and an increase in depression. The results do not show that becoming a father actually causes depression in young dads, but it makes sense that it might. They don’t suffer the same physical changes that are going on in new moms, but lots of aspects of parenthood are very stressful for a young dad. First, they are sleep deprived; exhaustion is a known cause of depression. Second, they suffer a kind of loss of their mate. Now mom is busy loving another person, often more than she loves her partner/spouse. Young dads may feel displaced, jealous, and guilty about that at the same time. The relationship between mother and baby is so intense and so culturally unique and special, that a young dad may really feel like a third wheel. Young dads, in particular, may have been enjoying a sort of fantasy new-love relationship with their beautiful partner, and now all of a sudden the rest of life has to do with spit up, dirty diapers, less sex, and a great deal of long-term responsibility. Young dads are also less likely to be secure in their jobs and their income. They may not feel strong in their ability to provide for their new family. All of this can certainly contribute to depression.

Why does this matter?

Depressed fathers “read and interact less with their kids, are more likely to use corporal punishment, and are more likely to neglect their kids. Compared to the children of non-depressed dads, these children are at risk for having poor language and reading development and more behavior problems and conduct disorders.” According to lead study author Dr. Craig Garfield, an associate professor in pediatrics and medical social sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, “Parental depression has a detrimental effect on kids, especially during those first key years of parent-infant attachment. We need to do a better job of helping young dads transition through that time period.”

What can we all do about this?

Just being more aware of how dads might feel when their babies are born is a start. So much of our focus is on the baby and on how mommy is doing. Dads are usually assumed to be fine, and to be there to help mom. The solution can start with the family and friends. Grandparents, aunts and uncles can offer to change a poopy diaper or two so that dads are not the only ones doing that. It may be a proud role for some new dads to be the diaper guy, but some may really hate it. Friends can take mom out for a walk so that dads can have some quiet, loving, alone time with the new baby if they want that. Or, if dad just needs to get out of the house for a while, friends can offer to watch over mom and the baby so that dad can get a break. Nights can be tough too, especially if dads have to go to work every day. Many young dads cannot afford to take leave from work when a baby is born, so they work all day and then try to spell mom during the night. Family and friends can spend a night here or there filling in for dad so that he can get a few full nights of sleep if that is an issue.

Sometimes, the simplest of things can make a big difference. We are now more aware that young dads have a hard time when their babies are young. Supporting them may prevent depression, which in turn could prevent behavior and learning problems in their children, thus breaking a cycle of family problems.