A new study reveals that expectant fathers experience depression symptoms during pregnancy and afterward just like moms. So no, it's not all about the hormones.
When you're pregnant, raging hormones can sometimes lead to depression. Even though it's a happy time, the upcoming birth of a child can be stressful, too, because it's such a huge life change. And now, a new study published in the American Journal of Men's Health shows that dads can be affected as well, with a significant number reporting getting the blues during their partner's pregnancy.
It's not just about hormones
Researchers measured the level of depressive symptoms of 622 first-time fathers during their partner's third trimester of pregnancy. What they found was surprising—over 13 percent reported symptoms of depression, even though they don't experience the hormonal changes that pregnant women do. "While hormones play a role in maternal pregnancy and/or postpartum depression, it's important to note that research has also shown environmental, i.e. economic status, and psychosocial factors, i.e. stress or low social support, are also related," lead author Deborah Da Costa, Ph.D., a researcher in the division of clinical epidemiology at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Center in Montreal, Canada, and associate professor in the university's Department of Medicine, tells Fit Pregnancy.
Because expectant dads as well as moms are going through this life-changing event, they can be affected psychologically, too. "Both men and women go through an important transition as they enter the parenting role," Da Costa says. "There are changes to personal identity, the couple relationship, the work-life role. While most people can adjust well, some have a more difficult time." Risk factors that make some dads more likely to become depressed, she says, include financial worries, experiencing other stressful life events like the loss of a job or illness, not having a strong support system, feeling less satisfied in their couple relationship, and having poor sleep quality. "These factors, particularly the sleep, will likely get worse after the baby is born," Da Costa says. "It is important for men to learn strategies to improve sleep and better cope with stress prior to their baby's birth."
Adding a child to the equation will only make things worse for men experiencing depressive symptoms, which can have long-term effects on the whole family. "Paternal depression [during pregnancy] is a strong predictor of depression for men within the first six months following their baby's birth," Da Costa says. It can negatively impact the couple relationship and bonding with the baby, and even lead to substance abuse, she says. Plus, "research has shown that paternal depression occurring during pregnancy or in the early months of the infant's life may also negatively affect the child's behavioral, emotional, cognitive and physical development."
In addition, depression in dads can also contribute to maternal depression—and vice versa. "In our study, we found that men were more likely to report depressive symptoms when their partner was experiencing more depressive symptoms during their pregnancy," Da Costa says. "Other research has shown that this relationship extends to the postpartum period as well. When one partner is depressed, the other should also be screened."
Signs to look for
How can you tell if your partner is experiencing depression? Watch for these signs: "If he looks down, anxious, quickly gets agitated or loses his temper, doesn't want to do things he or you used to enjoy together, and acts more quiet and withdrawn," Da Costa says. "It's important to discuss these feelings with your health care provider and get some resources and strategies to better prepare for the parenting role, and also address some of the factors that may be underlying some of these feelings."
Da Costa says that because the focus during pregnancy is on mom, dads have often been overlooked. "Men report feeling frustrated by the lack of inclusion, involvement and information specifically targeting fathers; moreover, men tend to feel that their emotional and psychological needs are neglected, and often report being excluded from discussions when attending antenatal visits with their partner," she says. So, it's important to make a point to include your partner and be attuned to his needs. "We also need remember that this is a transition for men as well and if we want them to be well equipped to support their partner and be ready for their parenting role, we need to ensure that they are mentally healthy."