Postpartum depression doesn’t just happen to women.
Fathers, too, can be depressed in the weeks following the birth of a child. And that depression can mean trouble for the child, report Paul Ramchandani, MD, consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Oxford, U.K., and colleagues.
"We found a doubling of risk of behavioral problems in children of fathers who had been depressed eight weeks after the birth," Ramchandani tells WebMD. "The thing that is striking is there is the same effect for fathers as has been established for mothers."
The researchers analyzed data collected as part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The study, based on questionnaires and psychological tests, included 8,431 fathers, 11,833 mothers, and 10,024 children. Data were collected eight weeks after the birth of a child, 21 months after the birth, and when the child was 3 years old.
The effect of a father's postpartum depression is not quite the same as that of a mother's depression.
"The mothers' depression effect is slightly higher than in fathers," Ramchandani says. "Depression in mothers seems linked to a range of later problems in both boys and girls. The father effect seems confined to boys and to behavior problems -- but this is not definitive."
Read Web MD's "Dads Obsess Over Fate of Newborns, Too."
Postpartum Depression: A Family Problem
The findings don't surprise Shari I. Lusskin, MD, director of reproductive psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. Postpartum depression, Lusskin says, isn't a mother's problem; it's a family problem.
"For a change, this study turns the spotlight away from women onto the rest of the family constellation," Lusskin says. "That is very important. Women get saddled with all the blame, which further stigmatizes postpartum depression and leads to women not getting diagnosed or treated. So now we are spreading the blame."
Nobody is really to blame, Lusskin is quick to point out. Mothers and fathers don't get depressed because they are bad parents.
Read Web MD's "Postpartum Depression: More Than 'Baby Blues."
Treatment for Mom and Dad
"Depression is a medical condition, not a moral condition," Lusskin says. "If you feel that your mood is not what it should be after the birth of a child, or if you feel your partner's mood is abnormal, seek help and seek help early. The sooner you get treated, the better -- and the fewer consequences for the mother, the father, and the child."
Ramchandani, too, argues that the focus should be on the family.
"This study flags one thing: There is an effect of fathers' depression," he says. "At the time of childbirth we focus on mothers. But actually we should be paying attention to the wider family. The birth of a child is a fantastic thing, but it is also a time of intense change, and that impacts the whole family."
Treatment, Lusskin says, should involve both partners -- not just the one who seems to be depressed.
"If you seek help, advise your doctor to meet your partner whenever possible, to assess the partner's emotional well-being and involve the partner in your recovery," she says. "A woman may be depressed but if her partner is even more depressed and nonfunctional, she has to take care not only of herself but her partner -- and can't rely on the partner to help with her own depression."
Even if a person's partner is not depressed, involving your significant other in postpartum-depression treatment minimizes mixed messages and unintentional interference with treatment.
"For example, if you going to give a woman antidepressant medications during breastfeeding, it is good to explain to her partner why you are making this risk/benefit choice, so the partner does not misunderstand and sabotage treatment," Lusskin says.
Read Web MD's "It's a Guy Thing: Labor Room Advice for Men."
Read Web MD's "Your Guide to Depression."
SOURCES: Ramchandani, P. The Lancet, June 25, 2005; vol 365: pp 2201-2205. Paul Ramchandani, MD, consultant, child and adolescent psychiatry, University of Oxford, U.K. Shari I. Lusskin, MD, director of reproductive psychiatry; and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and obstetrics/gynecology, NYU School of Medicine.