Thanks to an increased awareness of the risks of post-partum depression to both mothers and their children, doctors routinely ask pregnant women about their mental state. Now, a new study has found that the mental health of expectant fathers is worth keeping an eye on, too.
Norwegian researchers have found a link between a dad's mental state during pregnancy and the behaviour of their children at age three.
"The results of this study point to the fact that the father's mental health represents a risk factor for child development, whereas the traditional view has been that this risk in large is represented by the mother," study lead author Anne Lise Kvalevaag told HealthDay writer Amanda Gardner. "The father's mental health should therefore be addressed both in research and clinical practice."
As Gardner writes, the study, published in the journal Pediatrics , involved more than 31,000 children born in Norway and their parents. Fathers and mothers were asked about their mental health when the pregnancies were four or five months along. Then, parents provided information about "their children's social, emotional and behavioral development at age 3 years."
Kvalevaag told Gardner she and her colleagues did not look at specific diagnoses in children, but asked if kids "got into a lot of fights, were anxious or if their mood shifted from day to day."
Three per cent of the fathers reported high levels of psychological distress and children of the most distressed men struggled the most emotionally at age three, according to Gardner's report. The study controlled for factors including fathers' age, education, marital status, alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and physical activity, as well as mothers' mental health.
Still, the findings do not include a cause-and-effect explanation. One culprit could be a genetic link between a father's mood and a child's behaviour. Another could be a dad's predisposition to post-partum depression, which can affect a child's development. Or the mental state of the father could be influencing the fetus via a mother's stress response to the father's mood during the pregnancy.
Daniel Armstrong, professor of pediatrics and director of the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine told Gardner the last theory could be a real possibility.
"If a father is highly distressed, that could affect the mom's secretion of hormones during pregnancy, it could affect her sleep, her own mental status," he said.
And although we're talking about depression and its negative effects on children, there is at least a sliver of good news here – at least we're looking at the role of both parents, not just mom.