While up to 20 percent of women have depression or anxiety after a baby delivery, up to 10 percent of fathers do, too, according to estimates from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
For 50 years, the medical community has explored how and why new mothers get the “baby blues” or the more serious conditions of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. Now, experts realize that new dads also risk depression as part of the challenging transition to parenthood.
“We are just starting to learn about what paternal depression is, how it affects dads, when it comes on, and how it affects their children and their families,” says family physician Craig Garfield, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and an attending clinician at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
There may be no single answer to why some new dads are affected by depression and not others, but the increased pressures of fatherhood, along with fiscal responsibilities, a lack of sleep and increased workload at home all play a part in his mental wellbeing. For men who have struggled with depression in the past, the life changes of fatherhood can lead to a recurrence of depressive symptoms.
Stress and Depression in New Dads
The preferred term for depression affecting new dads is postnatal depression, rather than postpartum depression, Garfield says. While up to 20 percent of women have depression or anxiety after a delivery, up to 10 percent of fathers do, too, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The exact number is hard to come by and may be higher. “Men are less likely to report being sad and feeling hopeless and guilty,” Garfield says.
Recently, Garfield and his colleagues evaluated data from more than 10,000 young men enrolled in a long-running study that tracked them from teen years into young adulthood, including their transition to fatherhood. “Men are more likely to respond by being more angry or aggressive,” Garfield says.
Ongoing research proves the condition is very real and needs to be examined further, but the new studies also found:
- When new dads are depressed, they may be more likely to use more corporal punishment, read less to their children and interact less with them, says Garfield.
- The father’s depression also leads to a higher risk of other children at home having poor language skills, poor reading ability and more behavioral problems.
- Men may drink more alcohol and become more irritable.
- New dads may lose interest in previous pursuits and hobbies, work or relationships.
The same depression tool that is used to screen mothers can be used for fathers, and most experts support screening both parents for postnatal depression in the days or weeks after delivery. Before it gets to that, though, expectant dads might try these coping strategies:
Zoom in. New fathers, often focused on the financial aspects of new parenthood, should “tune in” to their innermost feelings and be aware of the risk of depression.
Do “dad things.” If possible, a new dad should accompany mom and baby to the pediatrician and other healthcare visits, Garfield says. “Going to the pediatrician together with your baby is very helpful. Just by talking about [new parental stressors] will make some men feel better.”
Get help. A new dad who feels low for several weeks, or extremely anxious, should consult his primary care doctor and ask about a referral for mental health help.
Friends and family who are close to new parents can become aware that depression affects both new moms and new dads, and observe how each are transitioning.
- Offer concrete help, not vague terms such as ''Call me if you need anything.” Depending on how close you are to the new parents, offer to take the baby for a walk, do their laundry or deliver ready-made meals to both parents to ease the burden.
- If you notice a new dad who is not behaving in the same way he used to, or is suddenly not interested in parental activities or even the new baby, encourage him to get help or talk to his doctor or a family therapist. Talk therapy and temporary medications go a long way toward helping new dads beat the baby blues.