THURSDAY, June 23, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Postnatal depression among mothers is a well-known occurrence, but fathers can suffer from it, too. Now, a new study finds that children whose fathers experienced postnatal depression face increased risks of behavioral and emotional problems in early life.
"The influence of fathers in very early childhood might have been underestimated in the past," write researchers at the University of Oxford in Britain. "Although our findings need to be confirmed and expanded, we believe that after the birth of a child, depression in fathers, as well as depression in mothers, should be actively considered."
Postnatal depression can strike both the mother and father of a newborn child. In mothers, postnatal depression can affect the quality of the care she provides her baby, leading to problems in the child's social, behavioral, cognitive and physical development.
Less is known about the impact of paternal postnatal depression, according to the report published in the June 25 issue of The Lancet.
In their study, Oxford's Dr. Paul Ramchandani and colleagues collected data on more than 13,300 mothers and 12,800 fathers who took part in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.
The researchers assessed the mothers and fathers for depression eight weeks after the birth of their baby. The fathers were assessed again at 21 months. Ramchandani's group also assessed the children's emotional and behavioral development at age three-and-a-half years.
Postnatal depression in fathers was associated with emotional and behavioral problems in children, particularly boys, the team found. These effects held even after the researchers adjusted for maternal postnatal depression and any paternal depression appearing after the postpartum period.
"Depression could compromise the ability of fathers both to care responsively for their children and to undertake other roles in the family," the researchers theorize. "The potential for an effect of paternal depression on child development indicated by this research emphasizes the fact that addressing paternal depression in its own right is important," they conclude.
One expert was intrigued by the findings. "The study highlights the importance of looking at the entire family when treating a woman for postpartum depression," said Dr. Shari I. Lusskin, the director of reproductive psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. She said it also "affirms that if you don't treat the family system, you may be missing significant risk factors to the child. It also helps destigmatize maternal mental illness by spreading the responsibility for child mental health beyond just the mother."
Lusskin believes there should be universal screening for depression during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. "If you recognize that you are suffering from any sort of mood disturbance, seek help early," she advises. "Also, mention to your doctor that you would like to discuss your partner's mental health as well."
Another expert agreed. "A problem cannot be effectively confronted until recognized, and these researchers have done us all the favor of calling to our attention a neglected problem," said Dr. David L. Katz, associate clinical professor of public health and director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine.
"As these researchers suggest, future studies can now attend to means of identifying depression in fathers of newborns, and ways both to treat it and mitigate its potentially damaging effects on the children," Katz said.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine can tell you more about postnatal depression.