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Dads Who Take a More Hands-on Role Their Kid's First Year Have Better Mental Health

2 MARCH 2021

Postpartum depression doesn't just affect mothers. Fathers can also experience similar rates of depression after the birth of their children, although research and awareness on this issue is still in its infancy. 

 

A new psychology study among low-income fathers from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds suggests those who are more involved in the first year of their kid's life show better mental health outcomes overall.

In particular, those fathers who were more confident in their parenting abilities, spent more time with their newly-born children and provided more materials, like diapers, toys, clothing, and food, reported lower depressive symptoms after a year.

This was true even after accounting for various demographics, like age, ethnicity, education, employment status and whether or not parents were living together or married to one another.

"Generally speaking, I think fathers are important in the family," psychologist Olajide Bamishigbin Jr from California State University, Long Beach told PsyPost.

"However, in our field, historically, they have been understudied, especially racial/ethnic minority fathers."

According to the authors, their research is the first to evaluate how parenting is related to depressive symptoms over time in this historically overlooked group, and while the results may not hold up for other socioeconomic or cultural spheres, the sample size is relatively large and helps diversify the field. 

 

The findings largely match other literature on the subject, which suggests when fathers are more involved in raising their children, the kid and both parents benefit.

The study in this case was based on 881 fathers from five areas in the United States, who were first interviewed one month after the birth of their child and again at six months and one year.

At each point, these new fathers were asked to complete a scale for postpartum depression, while also disclosing how confident they felt as parents, how often they provided material support and how much time they spent with their baby, both alone and with others.

The findings suggest paternal involvement is an important predictor of a father's mental health when transitioning to parenthood, even though a significant number of those interviewed were not married and did not live with their baby's mother.

"In general, I think there are two big takeaways. First, involvement with your child is not only better for the child, but it's also better for the dad. So, dads, get involved with your kids early and often!" Bamishigbin told PsyPost. 

 

"Second, I think it is important for everyone to understand that paternal depression is a serious issue that requires attention. It affects fathers thereby impacting the entire family. So, it's important that we take it seriously." 

More research is needed to understand why these correlations exist, but the authors have put forward a few explanations. Previous studies have shown greater self-confidence in a father's parenting abilities is associated with greater satisfaction, and this, in turn, has been linked to fewer depressive symptoms. 

The cultural and gendered idea of a father as a 'provider' may also be playing into why fathers feel better about themselves when they can give their kids the essentials they need to grow and thrive.

"Fathers who feel competent as parents may therefore be more satisfied in their roles, and as a result, have fewer depressive symptoms," the authors suggest

If that's true, then ensuring fathers are prepared for parenthood is vital for their health and the health of their babies.

Parenting classes and programs for fathers already exist, the authors admit, but these opportunities are often not culturally sensitive or accessible to those from diverse racial, ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds.

 

The study can only show us correlations and further research will need to tease apart the complex links between confidence as a parent, time spent with kids and mental health. It could be, for instance, that those fathers who are less depressive in general are simply more likely to feel confidence as a parent.

Participants were not screened for histories of depression or their mental health during pregnancy, which means there is a possibility that some fathers were already depressed before their child was born, leading to lower involvement in their kid's life. 

Interestingly, however, studies have shown lower depressive symptoms are associated with changes in hormones like oxytocin, and this hormone increases in fathers when they positively interact with their children.

The current research did not actually examine the quality of a father's relationship with his baby, but it could be that those who spend more time with their kids are protected against future depressive symptoms through changes in their hormones or neural functioning.

If this is true then it's vital public health policies find a way for fathers to spend more time with their kids, especially because this may also impact their children and even the mental health of their baby's mothers. 

In fact, research on fathers in countries with paid parental leave reveals they spend significantly more time with their kids, even after that leave is over.

"This study suggests that these factors associated with depression in fatherhood may be addressed by increasing skills in parenting, improving or enhancing ways for fathers to spend time with their children, as well as enabling fathers to provide material support for their children," the authors conclude

"Future researchers should consider designing and testing interventions to assess the impact of paid paternal leave and increases in parenting self-efficacy skills on paternal depression in ethnically diverse populations."

The study was published in Frontiers in Psychiatry