Toddlers whose fathers had high levels of psychological distress while a baby was still in the womb had more emotional and behavioral problems when they were 3, according to a study from Norway.
The study has just been published in the journal Pediatrics.
Researchers looked at data from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort, which gathered information about the families of 31,663 children, including self reports in Week 17 or 18 of the pregnancy regarding the mental health of the fathers. When the babies were 3, their socio-emotional and behavioral development was assessed, with the child's mother answering the new questionnaires.
After controlling for demographics like paternal age and marital status, lifestyle variables like smoking and alcohol use, and the mother's mental health, the researchers still found a connection between a dad's mental health during the pregnancy and the child's emotions and behaviors later.
The data didn't address why or how the factors were associated, but several "possible mechanisms could be at work," lead author Anne Lise Kvalevaag of Helse Fonna Hospital in Haugesund, Norway, told USA Today.
"One possibility is a genetically transmitted risk to the child ... or depression in the father could affect the mental health of the mother in such a way that the neonatal development of the child is affected," wrote the newspaper's Michelle Healy. "Another possibility: The father's prenatal mental health could predict his mental state after the child's birth, which 'may also account for some of the associations found.'"
A small group of the fathers in the study — just 3 percent — had significant mental health issues.
The finding indicates similarities between paternal and maternal postpartum depression, according to experts. "We need to be aware of depression in both parents from the time a pregnancy is realized," James Paulson, associate professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., who was not involved in the research, told Healy. Despite the small percentage of men who were highly distressed, it's still a "substantial public health problem," he said.
Other experts agreed. An article in WebMD noted three major possibilities for a link between fathers’ prenatal psychological distress and young children’s emotional and behavioral problems: The children may have inherited a genetic susceptibility to such problems from their father. The expectant fathers’ depression could be impacting the pregnant mother's mental health and thus affecting the baby. Or a dad's depression might indicate he'll still be depressed after the baby is born.
“Fathers who have mental health difficulties during the prenatal period are likely to continue to have those difficulties during the child’s infancy, which may directly affect young children’s development,” psychologist Elizabeth Harvey of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told WebMD.
Fathers are typically overlooked at doctor's appointments for the mother and child, the researchers noted. After all, mom and baby are being evaluated.
A father's depression could also impact a mother's sense of well-being during the pregnancy and influence the baby's future that way. "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," said Daniel Armstrong, professor of pediatrics and director of the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, quoted in Counsel & Heal.
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