It's well-known that new mothers can get the baby blues, but fathers can also suffer from postnatal depression and having a despondent dad early in life can leave long-lasting psychological marks on children, a study suggests. Children whose dads experienced depression after bringing home what is usually a new bundle of joy were found to have an increased risk for emotional and behavioural problems, at least through early childhood, the study found.
"We have known for some time that depression in mothers has a wide range of effects in the development of children, both emotional and behavioural and, indeed, cognitive effects," said study co-author Dr. Jonathan Evans, a psychiatrist at the University of Bristol. "What has been less clear is whether the father's psychological state has an important impact on how the child developed."
Not only did the researchers find that a new dad's mental state could influence his offspring, but their analysis showed the effect was independent of whether the mother was depressed or not after the birth.
"The father's mood still seems to be important in the outcome for these children," Evans said Thursday from Bristol, England. "So the risk of having emotional, behavioural problems in a child whose father is depressed is twice that compared to a father who is not depressed at birth.
Paternal depression seemed to affect sons more often than daughters, said Evans, noting that the children could be anxious, get into fights with other children, have discipline problems, and exhibit symptoms of hyperactivity, such as poor attention.
It's not known why boys seem more sensitive to Dad's mental state, said Evans, but he speculated that there may be genetic factors or a difference in how fathers interact with sons compared with daughters.
"Maybe fathers are more involved and their involvement is more important in boys, or the ways they interact with boys and girls is different and that's affected by depression."
The research, published this week in the Lancet, used data from a 12-year study of almost 14,000 mothers and nearly 13,000 fathers. Regular questionnaires on the physical, emotional and cognitive health of mothers, fathers and their children were filled out by participants.
Researchers from the universities of Oxford, Bristol and Rochester in the United States analysed responses from the fathers and found that eight weeks after the birth, almost four per cent reported symptoms of depression, including anxiety, mood swings, irritability, and feelings of hopelessness. About 10% of mothers had similar signs of depression. The figures reflect the proportion of male-female depression among the general public at any given time, Evans said.
The researchers then assessed emotional symptoms and behaviour reported in the children at age 3 1/2 (the children are now 12-13).
"It is wonderful to see research that is focusing on the role fathers play," said Dr. Sarah Shea, a pediatrician at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. "A lot of the information we have has focused on mothers, including the literature about the very powerful effect that maternal depression has on infant and child outcomes. We know fathers are important, we don't always have as much information about things like the role of depression."
She said the study may encourage doctors to be on the lookout for signs of depression not only in new moms, but also in male mates.
"I think this article raises the question of whether we need to be looking for opportunities for face-to-face contact with fathers," Shea said from Vancouver, where she was attending the Canadian Pediatric Society's annual meeting.
"Or at a minimum, to get Mom's perception of how Dad is doing, about whether there might be some areas of concern, such as marital conflict or other evidence that Dad's not functioning well."
Oxford psychiatrist Dr. Paul Ramchandani, lead author of the study, said in a release that the findings illustrate that fathers influence their children's development "from very early in life."
"Although largely neglected to date, paternal depression in the postnatal period should be recognized and treated by health-care professionals in order to lessen any adverse effects on the child," Ramchandani said.