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First Treatment for Dads’ Postpartum Depression Shows Promise, Study Says

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Key Takeaways

  • Researchers launched a new pilot study aimed at addressing the mental health challenges of fathers after the birth of a child.
  • After participating in the program, dads (as well as their partners) experienced a significant reduction in stress and a boost in feelings of social and emotional support.
  • Experts say that developing more support and interventions for new dads may help curb postpartum depression in men and improve outcomes for their families.

Postpartum depression is most common among moms, but it can affect dads, too. In fact, research shows that around one in 10 fathers experiences depression in the year after their baby’s birth.

Despite growing recognition of the mental health challenges that affect fathers, little has been done to address and treat their postpartum depression. However, a new pilot study may have found an effective intervention to help dads adjust to the stress of a growing family—and it could have a positive impact on their partners and children, as well.

The Pilot Study

To address paternal mental health and help dads build skills to support their partners’ emotional well-being, researchers from Northwestern University and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago developed a “Fathers and Babies” program for men to participate in after the birth of a child. It involves 12 sessions of interventions led by a home visitor, or done via text messages every week or biweekly.

The cognitive-behavioral therapy-based program focuses on three key areas: participating in pleasant and stress-relieving activities, understanding and coping with distressing thoughts, and developing a support network. It includes encouragement for dads to support their partners’ efforts to improve their mental health, as well.

To test the program, the researchers recruited 30 dads whose partners were already enrolled in a similar program called “Mothers and Babies.” The group was racially diverse and the moms and dads were between 26 and 28 years old, on average. All fathers in the study were employed either part or full time. 

Brandon Eddy, PhD

With more research, the intervention could be improved and provide an important tool to help decrease paternal postpartum depression.

— Brandon Eddy, PhD

The researchers used a series of surveys throughout the study to measure participants’ symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Additionally, researchers measured the social and emotional support participants felt was available from their partners and other sources.

The results showed stress levels in both the fathers and the mothers dropped significantly from the start of the study through the six-month follow-up. The program seemed to have a slight effect on symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well.

Feelings of support also increased among the parents. At the six-month follow-up, 38% of fathers and 41% of mothers exhibited high instrumental support (or the perception that someone was available to help with basic daily tasks), compared with just 27% of fathers and 13% of mothers at the start of the study. Likewise, 50% of dads experienced high emotional support after 6 months, compared with fewer than a third at the beginning of the program. 

“With more research, the intervention could be improved and provide an important tool to help decrease paternal postpartum depression,” says Brandon Eddy, PhD, assistant professor in the couple and family therapy program at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “I think this study builds upon previous research that shows men need more support during this time period.”

How a New Baby Can Affect Dads’ Mental Health

Much of the focus on parental mental health after the birth of a child tends to be on mothers. But fathers, too, face similar emotional challenges that have received far less attention among researchers and the medical community.

“While fathers don’t have the radical hormone shifts and physical changes to the body that women do after giving birth, men do have to adapt to a brand new lifestyle of nurturing and support that is often unfamiliar to them. This unfamiliarity causes a lot of anxiety particularly among men who have had little exposure to newborns,” explains Nolan Davis, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Thriveworks in Charlotte, North Carolina

There are also the practical challenges of having a newborn at home, which is a huge source of stress.

Brandon Eddy, PhD

Despite the progress we’ve made in focusing on paternal mental health, there is still an expectation for men to ‘suffer in silence’ or ‘man up’ and forget their own needs.

— Brandon Eddy, PhD

“Transitioning to parenthood is difficult. It can feel a bit like juggling. Fathers are trying to support their partner and take care of their new child, while still working full time,” says Eddy, who has also published research on postpartum depression in men. “On top of that, many fathers are suffering from severe sleep deprivation, which exacerbates nearly every stressor experienced during this time.”

And with few companies offering paid paternity leave, working dads often have little time to spend at home bonding with their newborn and adapting to their changing family, let alone addressing their own stress and mental health. 

“Despite the progress we’ve made in focusing on paternal mental health, there is still an expectation for men to ‘suffer in silence’ or ‘man up’ and forget their own needs. It is their job to support, not be supported,” says Eddy. “But this type of attitude leads to negative outcomes for fathers, their relationships, and ultimately their families.”

Support for Fathers

The growing body of research on early fatherhood shows that interventions similar to what’s already been developed for mothers may also offer benefits to dads.

“It is important to focus on the potential needs of the fathers as well, not only because of the impact on the fathers individually, but because the mental health of the father can play a significant role in the mother's mental health and meeting the needs of the child,” says Keith Stowell, MD, MSPH, chief medical officer at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care in New Jersey.

While the program in this study is not yet open to the general public, other resources are available to help support fathers after the birth of a child. Dr. Stowell recommends that dads coping with feelings of anxiety, depression, stress, or other challenges talk it over with their primary care physician or a mental health professional.

Stigmas against mental health challenges, particularly among men, could make it difficult for some dads to seek support, though. That’s why Eddy recommends that healthcare professionals take a proactive approach with dads after childbirth.

Nolan Davis, LMFT

Fathering, just like mothering, requires the support of family and friends who not only love the child and want the best for them, but want the best for the couple that created this wonderful new person.

— Nolan Davis, LMFT

“After the birth of the child, both the mother and baby have several follow-up visits. This is an ideal time for [healthcare providers to] check-in with the entire family, even if fathers are not present at the visit. Physicians or therapists can ask how various members of the family are coping,” he says.

Another source of support for fathers could be their own dads, adds Davis.

“Your father has been through this before and might have some advice. If you are not close with your father, talking to friends, neighbors, or coworkers you trust about how things are going can really help,” he says.

Connecting with individuals in the community also has the added benefit of helping dads build a support network, which can be a huge boost to their mental health.

“Fathering, just like mothering, requires the support of family and friends who not only love the child and want the best for them, but want the best for the couple that created this wonderful new person,” says Davis. “The best fathers are ones who don’t try to go it alone but instead understand their unique role and importance of a wider network of support that creates healthy babies and healthy families.”

What This Means For You

Dads’ mental health challenges after the birth of a child often fly under the radar of both families and doctors. However, like moms, many fathers experience postpartum depression, along with elevated stress and anxiety as they adjust to a growing family. 

Finding ways to help dads cope with the stressors of having a newborn can improve their mental health, as well as that of their partner. Experts recommend that healthcare professionals reach out to new dads to see how they’re doing. They also suggest that fathers seek support from their own dads and others in the community to alleviate stress and foster the well-being of their families.

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