Most often when people think about the face of postpartum depression, the image of a new mom comes to mind. However, recent research highlights that among heterosexual couples, it is also common for men to feel some symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety.
Welcoming a new baby into any family is a huge transition, and it is important to support new fathers. Research shows that children of heterosexual couples who have meaningful fatherhood involvement will benefit in many ways, including being well-prepared for school success and the ability to regulate their emotions3.
The Postpartum Period
Though sparse, research on paternal mental health in the postpartum period suggests that roughly 10 percent of new fathers experience some form of postpartum depression1, and between 2 and18 percent experience some type of postpartum anxiety2. Men appear to be at most at risk of developing postpartum mental health problems during the first three to six months of fatherhood1.
While the symptoms of postpartum anxiety and depression may look similar for men and women, the cultural expectations placed on new fathers can be different from those placed on mothers. These are important to recognize, as they may influence the struggles of new fathers as well as help those offering support to understand them more deeply.
Other articles about postpartum anxiety and depression:
- Awareness and risk factors for postpartum anxiety
- Postpartum depression vs. perinatal anxiety
- Postpartum anxiety and depression: Effect on children
Changes in Tradition
Historically, many Western cultures have depicted fathers as the patriarch of the family, holding authority and control over children, but having a minimal role in caring for and nurturing them3. Many men have been socialized to see their primary value in the family structure as a provider of resources, discipline, and safety to their family members, but not as a nurturer or caregiver.
However in recent decades, there has been more of an emphasis of developing egalitarian gender roles, including breaking down the binary and limiting roles that declare men as breadwinners and women as nurturers. Some new fathers may grapple with these social expectations of their role. Others may find it hard to engage in behaviors that help them bond with their children, such as playing, hugging, cooing, singing, and the physical nurturing that is so critical in infancy. And some may also be self-conscious because they believe these behaviors make them feel weak or they fear being perceived as feminine—an unfortunate way that devaluing women also harms men4. Also, the effect of gender stereotypes may make some men question their own capacity to succeed as a parent and lack confidence in their ability to relate to and parent their infant5.
Key Risk Factors for Postpartum Problems
It is vital that couples to talk about their parenting values and explore what roles are important for them to engage in. Some men may need more encouragement and teaching about how to bond with their infants, especially if they do not have many examples of nurturing and involved fathers in their own lives.
Research suggests that men are most at risk of developing postpartum mental health struggles if they or their spouse has a history of other mental health problems6. Research also suggests that men who experience higher relationship dissatisfaction7 and poorer social support8 are at greater risk.
Here are four strategies families and partners can employ to support new fathers:
1. Discuss paternal mental health with the obstetricians, pediatricians, nurse practitioners, midwives, and other health care providers involved with the pregnancy, delivery, and infancy. Identifying potential signs and risk factors of an emerging mental health problem is a key step to preventing it from becoming more severe.
2. Encourage expecting and new fathers to have open, assertive communication with their partners about their roles as parents. Specifically, talk about emotions that come up as fathers get to know their infants and settle into their role as parents, especially potential challenges they are experiencing. Mention explicitly any challenges the new father is experiencing related to taking on a more nurturing and caregiving role.
3. Spouses and partners should try to enhance the new father’s (and mother’s) belief in their ability to succeed as parents by encouraging and praising each other for the things they are learning, the ways they are settling in to their roles as parents, and for the caregiving tasks they take on.
4. Offer encouragement for new fathers to participate in infant care as soon as possible (diapering, sleeping, soothing, feeding routines) as time and practicality allow. Early involvement allow the tasks to become more routine and for the father-child bond to strengthen as time goes on.
These strategies should help boost paternal mental health in the postpartum period, as well as prevent the onset of related mental health problems. But if you or your partner continue to struggle, remember that you are not alone. It takes a village to raise a child, and many effective, evidence-based therapeutic interventions are available to support you.
1. Paulson, J. F., & Bazemore, S. D. (2010). Prenatal and postpartum depression in fathers and its association with maternal depression: A meta- analysis. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 303, 1961–1969. http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jama.2010.605
2. Leach, L. S., Poyser, C., Cooklin, A. R., & Giallo, R. (2016). Prevalence and course of anxiety disorders (and symptom levels) in men across the perinatal period: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 190675-686. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.09.063
3. Parke, R. (1996). Fatherhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
4. Levant, R. F. (1995). Toward the reconstruction of masculinity. In R. F. Levant & W. S. Pollack (Eds.), The new psychology of men (pp. 229–251). New York, NY: Basic Books.
5. Coleman, P. K., & Karraker, K. H. (1998). Self-efficacy and parenting quality: Findings and future applications. Developmental Review, 18, 47–85. http://dx.doi.org/10.1006/drev.1997.0448
6. Kim, P., & Swain, J. E. (2007). Sad dads: Paternal postpartum depression. [edgmont]. Psychiatry, 4, 35–47.
7. Gawlik, S., Müller, M., Hoffmann, L., Dienes, A., Wallwiener, M., Sohn, C., . . . Reck, C. (2014). Prevalence of paternal perinatal depressiveness and its link to partnership satisfaction and birth concerns. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 17, 49–56. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00737- 013-0377-4
8. Koh, Y. W., Chui, C. Y., Tang, C. S. K., & Lee, A. M. (2014). The prevalence and risk factors of paternal depression from the antenatal to the postpartum period and the relationships between antenatal and post- partum depression among fathers in Hong Kong. Depression Research and Treatment, 2014, 127632. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/127632
9. Singley, D. B., & Edwards, L. M. (2015). Men’s perinatal mental health in the transition to fatherhood. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46(5), 309-316. doi:10.1037/pro0000032
Sarah Krill Williston is a PhD Candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston, working in the Roemer lab. Her research centers on boosting mental health literacy and reducing stigma to encourage evidence-based care-seeking for anxiety and trauma-related disorders. Sarah specializes in offering evidence-based treatments like CBT and ABBT to individuals, particularly military families, active duty service members, and veterans with mood, anxiety, and trauma-related disorders.