Studies: Dads Can Get the Blues with New Children, Too

It’s hard to know what to make of this article and the accompanying editorial in the journal Pediatrics (New York Times, 3/17/11).  On one hand, it’s nice that they’re focusing their attention and research on fathers; on the other, I wish they’d comment on some research that seems to this layperson to be directly related to their subject.

Their subject is depression in new fathers and a new study and a meta-analysis of 43 other studies.  Briefly, like new mothers, new fathers are more apt to be depressed than men in the population who either aren’t dads or don’t have a new arrival in the home.  About 10% of new dads are depressed versus about 5% of men in the general population.

Depressive behavior manifests itself in less interaction with the child and more spanking.  Depressed dads were  more likely to be out of work and have drug or alcohol dependency than men generally.

The new study is from data gathered by our old friend the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study that’s been going on for over a decade.  It has a cohort of a little over 1,700 new fathers.  Because it comes from the Fragile Families data, it rightly should be read as illuminating dads who are mostly poor, poorly educated and young.

Interestingly, 82% of those fathers had brought their child to its pediatrician in the previous year.  That figure seems to corroborate the findings from earlier Fragile Families studies and separate data collected by sociologist Kathryn Edin.  Those indicate that, even among the group of poor, young and undereducated fathers, their desire to play an active role in their children’s lives is strong.

The meta-analysis is of 43 earlier studies comprising about 28,000 dads.

The “takeaway” from the article and the editorial is that pediatricians should be on the lookout for signs of depression in new dads when they come to the doctor’s appointment with their child.  Pediatricians have done this for years with mothers; now they’re being encouraged to do it with dads too and refer them for treatment if necessary.

That’s a good thing.  Being a new dad is tough enough without trying to do it through a fog of depression.  Also, dads need to be recognized for their value to their children.  A pediatrician who takes the time, pays attention to the dad’s emotional state and tries to do something about it, explicitly and implicitly acknowledges his worth as a father.  Few other things in this culture do that, so pediatricians are in a position to strike a blow for dads.

As the new study’s authors, Dr. Craig Garfield and Richard Fletcher write in their editorial,

“Fathers” active roles in families and their mental health clearly influence child development and well-being. The field of pediatrics is now faced with finding ways to support fathers in their parenting role much in the same way we support mothers.’

Well said.

I wish I could say the same for the NYT article whose author seems unclear on one possible origin of the new dads’ depression.

Although postpartum depression in new mothers is often linked to hormonal fluctuations, increasingly the medical community is focusing on the emotional effect of new parenthood on both men and women.

That sentence suggests that Tara Parker-Pope believes that, while mothers’ postpartum depression is hormonally caused, dads’ must stem from something else.  That’s one I’m not buying.

As I’ve written before, back in the 90s, research came to light showing that fathers and mothers undergo the same hormonal changes leading up to the birth of a child.  Specifically, the hormones prolactin, cortisol and oestradiol are what connect adults of parental species to their offspring.  Without increased levels of those, mammals don’t act like parents.  But when researchers inject them with those substances, adult mammals do behave like expectant parents, even when the female isn’t pregnant.

What Dr. Anne Storey and colleagues at Memorial University in Newfoundland learned is that human males who are present during their partner’s pregnancy show the same spikes in those hormones as do the pregnant female.  Humans are a bi-parental species, and that’s why.  That’s also why the saying that “she’s pregnant but he has morning sickness,” is no “old wives tale.”

So if Mom’s postpartum depression is based in hormonal fluctuations, might not Dad’s be as well?  That seems particularly true when we consider that, immediately after birth, his testosterone level drops markedly.

And yet, no one – not Garfield, Fletcher or Parker-Pope – so much as mentions the possibility that Dad’s depression might have the same origin as Mom’s.  After all, if the two come from the same source, wouldn’t treatment be similar as well?

Whatever the case, it’s good to see real issues of fatherhood being treated seriously by people in the position to have an effect.  The more people saying things like “fathers” active roles in families and their mental health clearly influence child development and well-being,” the better.

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