This article was first published in Pregnancy BUMP&baby Issue 16 and is reproduced with kind permission from the Editor
Dr Felicia Low
Lead, Knowledge Hub for Maternal and Child Health
Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures
In recent years, there has been growing attention on the mental wellbeing of pregnant mums and new mothers. About 15% of women experience high levels of mental distress either before or after birth, and it’s estimated that nearly half of all mothers are affected by at least some level of mental distress during their pregnancy or postnatal journey.
However, what is less known is fathers can be affected too. Welcoming a new member into the family can be an exciting but overwhelming time for dads as they adjust to a new family dynamic, while trying to support their partner. This may be even more challenging during a complicated pregnancy, following a difficult birth experience, or dealing with the challenges of newborn care such as sleeping and feeding.
While there is comparatively little research on dads, a New Zealand survey found that about 2% of Kiwi fathers experienced depression during their partner’s pregnancy, and 4% reported depression after birth of their child. More recent studies from other countries report higher rates of around 10%. Even so, these figures are thought to underestimate the true rates.
Mental distress in fathers can have a large impact if not adequately addressed.
Firstly, dads may be experiencing symptoms such as feeling moody, isolated, constantly tired, and having sleep and appetite problems. Given dads do not have the same physical connection to their baby as mums during pregnancy and breastfeeding, there may be a sense of exclusion that can be further deepened by the mum-centric nature of the commercial and medical worlds.
Secondly, it can affect mums too. Fathers with depression may withdraw emotionally from their partners and communicate less, resulting in more friction in the relationship and affecting parenting. This can unfortunately compound if both parents are experiencing mental distress.
Thirdly, fathers’ mental distress may also affect their children’s socio-emotional development. A strong parent-child bond with lots of warm interactions is important for brain development. As with mums, dads who have depressive symptoms can, understandably, have more difficulty bonding with their baby. Both antenatal and postnatal depression in fathers is consistently linked to a greater risk of mood and behavioural issues in infants and school-aged children. Part of this appears to be due to harsher parenting style and relationship conflict with mum. We are now learning that the potentially negative outcomes for children may continue through to the teenage years.
Regrettably, just as for women, there is no perinatal screening for mental wellbeing for fathers. Nor is there dedicated paternity leave for dads to take time to bond with their babies.
So what can dads (and mums) do to help ensure that their mental wellbeing is in the best possible shape? Awareness is the most important thing!
Social and cultural expectations, such as the idea that dads should be ‘staunch’ in the face of new challenges, may prevent them from realising that there is a problem. We also know from the NZ study that risk factors include not being in a relationship with the child’s mother, being unemployed, not being in great physical health, and having a history of depression.
Dads – recognising that you might be struggling, that you are not alone, and that it is perfectly ok, is the key first step.
The next step is committing to acting on that. Seeking (and accepting) help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Ask your midwife, GP or Well Child provider for advice, as they can help you access support services. Also, reach out to friends and whānau for social support.
Just as airplane safety instructions urge us to put on our oxygen masks first before helping others, a well-supported dad with his ‘oxygen mask’ on can better support and meet the needs of both mum and baby. This will benefit the entire family and help give baby a great developmental headstart.
Useful links and helplines
Kidz Need Dadz
kidzneeddadz.org.nz | 0800 563 123
www.plunket.org.nz/being-a-parent/being-a-dad/your-mental-health/ | Plunketline 0800 933 922
Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Aotearoa
0800 111 757 or text 4202