The physiological and lifestyle changes that can impact a new mom’s emotions are discussed with more regularity these days—which is a welcome step in the right direction. But the emotional toll doesn’t only affect moms: A new study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior highlights the hormonal issues that put new dads at risk for paternal depression.
“We tend to think of postpartum depression as a mom thing,” says Darby Saxbe, the study’s lead author. “It’s not. It’s a real condition that might be linked to hormones and biology.”
According to the data collected by Saxby’s team, approximately 10 percent of new fathers feel depressed after the baby comes along, which isn’t far behind the 20 percent of moms who report postpartum depression.
And, just like women, men’s hormones come into play: Dads whose testosterone levels drop after welcoming a baby are more likely to fall into that 10 percent suffering from depression. (On the other end of the spectrum, high testosterone levels were linked to greater levels of stress and hostility—emotionally, verbally or physically—toward partners.)
Recognizing new dad depression matters for all of us. The researchers found the link between low testosterone and depression in dads was mediated by relationship satisfaction. In other words, when men with lower testosterone levels had a supportive co-parent, it helped reduce depressive symptoms.
How else can you help if you find your partner displaying symptoms of depression? Here are four suggestions:
Create a safe space for your partner to talk
Erin Barbossa, LMSW, is a psychotherapist who works with clients during the transition to parenthood. She says partners can help work through depression by sharing their own experiences with parenthood—without blaming, shaming or criticizing.
“Keep it focused on your own perspective of the relationship, not making blanket statements or assumptions,” Barbossa suggests. “[Try] saying something like, ‘I'm worried that you don't seem like yourself since the baby came.’ Don't expect him to pour out his heart and agree with you.”
Studies have shown the most effective support for new dads suffering from depression comes from their partner. Researchers suggest encouragement from the mother and active discussion between couples can ease the stress new fathers feel.
Sharing parenting duties helps, too, as dads can become depressed if they feel iced out of the mother-baby bond.
Be supportive of counseling
If you notice your partner is becoming depressed, talk to him about the benefits of counseling and consider going yourself: One risk factor for postnatal depression is having a partner who also suffers, so prioritizing your own mental health can help both of you.
“[People] often think their partner is ‘the problem,’ but starting with an open heart to your own vulnerability can be a huge gift to your partner,” says Barbossa. “You can better understand what you can and can't influence in your relationship with the help of a professional.”
A professional may also help you see what are concerning behaviors, as Barbossa notes the transition to parenthood can escalate abuse patterns in a relationship.
“If your partner is increasing his control over money, your social experiences, who you talk to, or how you parent, this may be a sign that he is triggered in a way that isn't safe for you,” she says. “If these things are happening or you find him blaming or shaming you for how the baby behaves, this may be a sign that you need support regarding the health of the relationship.”
Encourage them to connect with other dads
New moms are often told to find their tribe, but having community support is key for fathers, too. Getting out and meeting other dads can keep new dads from feeling isolated, especially if they’re in a new geographic area or are the first of their friends to become fathers.
Dad-and-baby groups are becoming more and more common, which are great ways for dads to connect while building confidence. Many community centers offer such programs or new dad “bootcamps,” workshops designed to bring fathers together while covering the basics of infant care.
Accept recommended medical help
Saxby says treating depression in new fathers through hormone supplementation is not a good idea, as low testosterone during the postpartum period may be a natural adaptation to parenthood. Instead, she recommends dad seek out the same supports recommended to moms: Antidepressants may be recommended by a family doctor, and talk therapy, physical fitness and adequate sleep can help, too.
Remember, if your baby’s father does seem distracted and unlike himself, it’s not necessarily a reflection of his love for you or the baby. The transition to parenthood (and the sleep deprivation that comes with it) affects individuals differently.
You may not be feeling the exact same way he does, but chances are you’ve had down moments, so talk about them. By sharing your own vulnerabilities and being open about postpartum depression, you can create an environment where both of you are aware of the other’s struggles—and can support each other along the way.