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Postnatal depression in fathers

Photo: Britt-Marie Sohlström. Creative Commons.

Postnatal depression in fathers after the birth of a child may affect his interaction with the infant and have long-term consequences.

Postnatal depression in fathers is an important obstacle to the early father-child relationship. Undermining father-baby bonding and restricting paternal care and engagement can be a barrier to a positive subsequent cycle of confidence, parenting skills, sensitivity to the child and responsibility for caring.

Postnatal depression (known as ”postpartum depression” in the US) is commonly used to describe a non-psychotic depressive disorder of mild to moderate severity within the first year following childbirth. Postnatal depression does not show a very specific set of symptoms – it includes low or sad mood, lack of interest, anxiety, sleep difficulties, reduced self-esteem, somatic symptoms and difficulty coping with day-to-day tasks. These symptoms may also coexist with other conditions such as anxiety, obsessions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Depression rates among new fathers vary, but seem to be lower than for women. A recent international analysis of 43 studies on rates of prenatal and postnatal depression in fathers found a depression rate of 5% (which in most studies is a little less than half of the prevalence rates for mothers). In our own recent Swedish study the prevalence rates for postnatal depression in fathers was 6.3.

There is debate about how much more common depression is after the birth of a baby compared to other times in man’s life. But the timing is important, because depression at this time may affect the interaction with the infant. As cultural expectations change and dual earner families become ever more common, fathers are increasingly taking responsibility for childcare in most Western societies. There is now substantial evidence showing that postnatal depression in fathers has a substantial impact on the parental relationship, the family, parent-infant interaction and on the longer term emotional and cognitive development of the child.

Fathers who were depressed were more likely to have the following (which is not the same things as saying that all depressed fathers have these!):

  • Less education
  • Experience of one or more stressful life events during the past 12 months
  • A history of depression
  • Partner relationship problems and/or less partner support than expected
  • Unemployment or illness
  • Insufficient support from relatives and friends
  • Depressive symptoms in their partner
  • More work than before the birth of the child
  • More than one child.