What is Paternal Postpartum Depression?
Postpartum depression (PPD) has traditionally been viewed as an issue that affects new mothers, but many people are unaware that fathers can also experience paternal postpartum depression. The exact number of new dads affected by PPD is unknown, but estimates range between two and 25%.
PPD can develop immediately after birth or up to a year after the baby is born. People with PPD may experience some or all of the symptoms of a major depressive disorder. Signs that you may be dealing with depression include:
- Feeling depressed and sad nearly every day for at least two weeks.
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies that were enjoyable at one time.
- Significant weight loss or gain.
- Increase or decrease in appetite.
- Changes in sleep, such as sleeping much more or less.
- Low energy.
- Feeling increasingly agitated or sluggish on a daily basis.
- Feeling worthless, ashamed, or guilty.
- Problems with concentration.
- Thoughts or plans of suicide.
Fathers dealing with paternal depression may also appear more irritable, easily annoyed, and emotionally distant. They may have a hard time connecting with the baby, which can make them seem uninterested in parenting responsibilities. Some depressed dads may turn to violence, drugs and alcohol, or other addictive behaviors to deal with their feelings.
Am I at risk for paternal postpartum depression?
While anyone can develop depression as a new dad, certain factors may put you at higher risk, including:
- Having a wife or partner who also suffers from postpartum depression.
- Not having a positive father figure as a child.
- Limited support from family and friends.
- Marital or relationship problems.
- Having a baby who is hard to soothe or colic.
- Stress in other areas of life, such as work and finances.
- Low levels of testosterone, estrogen, oxytocin, cortisol, and/or prolactin.
Why is it important to get help for paternal depression?
Paternal depression can take a toll on fathers and their families. Depression among dads is associated with:
- Poor bonding between father and children.
- Less play with children.
- Higher levels of parenting stress.
- Greater conflict between father and mother.
- Behavioral problems in children.
While PPD among dads poses risks for families, taking steps to deal with the issue can help prevent these outcomes.
How can I cope with paternal postpartum depression?
Fathers may find it challenging to express how they’re feeling during this time. They may believe that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. The truth is that vulnerability opens us up to support, which is essential for coping. Since paternal postpartum depression is so closely linked to maternal depression, improving communication as a couple can help both partners feel more supported, which can help alleviate depression.
It can be challenging and even embarassing to open up about the challenges of parenthood. Suggest that you and your spouse create a “no filter” zone, where neither of you can judge the other person for the entirety of the discussion. It’s normal to get upset when you hear your spouse expressing conflicting feelings about parenthood, but explain that whatever is spoken about is not meant to be taken personally. Creating a safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere can you help you both get these feelings off your chest and possibly come up with some solutions to help. For example, if a dad is feeling left out of mother/infant bonding, a couple can talk about ways to involve the dad more and foster a bond between father and baby.
“Bonding is the process of developing an attachment between you and your baby by spending quality time together. ”
What if I’m having a hard time bonding with my child?
Bonding is the process of developing an attachment between you and your baby by spending quality time together. Oftentimes bonding happens over time, rather than right away. If you don’t feel connected to your baby instantly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Many new parents don’t feel an instant bond with their babies and go on to develop healthy attachments.
To promote bonding between you and your child, try to spend as much quality time as you can with him or her. Quality time means making an effort to be present and mindful by staying away from distractions, like electronics. Make an effort to hold eye contact with your child and enter their world. Any type of activity, including feeding, playing, and cuddling, can be opportunities for bonding.
How can I help support a dad adjusting to parenthood?
If you notice that your husband, son, brother, friend, or other new father is having a hard time adjusting to fatherhood, offer the type of support that he seems most open to. Sometimes we feel that a person needs a certain thing. For example, we might think that a new dad NEEDS to talk about his feelings, but if he’s not comfortable doing so, pressuring him to open up will only close him off more. Instead, approach the new dad with options for support that he might be most receptive to, such as watching the baby so he can spend time with his partner or reconnect with his friends. If he’s overwhelmed with work or household chores, offer to help out so he can rest or bond with the baby. If he’s open to talking about how he feels, then by all means be there to listen. However, if he’s unwilling to open up, then let him know you’re there for him if he needs it, but resist the urge to pressure him.
When is it time to seek professional help?
Some dads may need to seek professional help to deal with the adjustment to fatherhood. Accepting that you need more support is a courageous step and models healthy behavior for your child as he/she grows.
You should consider seeking professional help if:
- Your depression continues for more than two weeks.
- Your depression seems to be getting worse, rather than better.
- You don’t have a good support system.
- You’re dealing with multiple stressors, like changing jobs, moving, loss of a loved one, etc.
- You have a history of mental health issues.
- You’re using drugs, alcohol, or other addictive behaviors (such as gambling or sex) to cope with your feelings.
- You’re having suicidal thoughts.
Depending upon what you’re looking for, there are several different types of mental health providers and forms of treatment available to help. You can start by discussing your symptoms with your doctor or looking for a psychiatrist or therapist.
Paternal postpartum depression is a difficult but treatable reaction to the life-changing experience of becoming a parent. If you’re a new dad experiencing PPD, make an effort to reach out for support, whether it be to a spouse or partner, family, friends, or a mental health professional.
Resources for new fathers:
Hill, D. L. (2012). Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
Shelov, S. P., Altmann, T. R., Hannemann, R. E., & Trubo, R. (2014). Caring for your baby and young child: Birth to age 5. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). Dads can get depression during and after pregnancy, too.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
Kim, P., & Swain, J. E. (2007). Sad dads: Paternal postpartum depression. Psychiatry (edgmont), 4(2), 35-47.
Paulson, J. F. (2011). Focusing on depression in expectant and new fathers. Patient Care Online.