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Make room for postpartum dads

The challenges of caring for a newborn are well known, but the conditions affecting new parents are still coming to light. Case in point: A new analysis found that one in 10 American fathers experience depression after the birth of their child.

But do men truly experience postpartum depression like women?

“I don’t think it’s the exact same phenomenon but there are many triggers [for depression] that they both share,” says Dr. Kenneth Robbins, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He says recent parents undergo four lifestyle changes linked to depression: decrease in sleep, exercise and social interactions with peers and an increase in alcohol. (Robbins says it’s not uncommon for new parents to have a few alcoholic drinks at night to help them fall asleep.)

Researchers from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va., published an analysis of 43 previously published studies involving 28,000 adults that showed an estimate of 10.4 percent of fathers experience paternal prenatal and postpartum depression. In general only 4.8 percent of men are believed to be depressed at any given point in time. For women, the rate of postpartum depression was estimated at nearly 24 percent according to the new analysis.

Postpartum and prenatal depression in women and its impact on family life and child development is widely recognized, but the prevalence, risk factors and effects of depression in new fathers is not well understood, and has received little attention from researchers and clinicians.

The study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also found a correlation between depression in fathers and mothers during this period.

“Future research in this area should focus on parents together to examine the onset and joint course of depression in new parents,” said one of the study’s authors, James Paulson, Ph.D.

Shari Lusskin, director of reproductive psychiatry at New York University Langone Medical Center and Mt. Sinai Medical Center, has worked with many postpartum mothers and believes that it’s important to evaluate both partners for pregnant or postpartum depression. In her clinical practice she frequently observes fathers affected by depression around childbirth.

“One factor [for the link between paternal and maternal depression] may be that people with a history of depression gravitate towards each other,” said Lusskin. “The father may then relapse during the perinatal period. While he is not subject to the intense hormonal changes of pregnancy, he is subject to the intense psychosocial pressures that accompany fatherhood.”

However, Lusskin believes that analyses of previous studies are not sufficient, and that large-scale studies are needed to really understand the prevalence of perinatal depression in fathers, as well as its risk factors and methods of treatment.

“A father is an important part of the support system for a new mother, and if he is not well, he won’t be able to help her care for the baby. His illness may place additional strain on the pregnant or postpartum woman,” said Lusskin. She added that postpartum depression in dads can have an effect on the child’s development that is independent of the effects of maternal depression on the child.