We know that postpartum depression is a serious condition that affects mothers and their babies. In recent years, hospitals and healthcare providers have increased screenings, outreach and awareness about postpartum depression—in hopes of helping more families through the emotional weeks, months and years following the birth of a baby.
New research suggests that mothers aren't the only ones at risk of developing postpartum depression. Fathers are also at risk—and often don't know to look or ask for help.
A large study from doctors at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago examined the mental health of new fathers to babies who were born prematurely.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that both parents with a baby in the NICU are at risk, with depression symptoms identified in 33 percent of mothers and 17 percent of fathers. The study found that mothers symptoms declined significantly when they were allowed to bring their baby home. That wasn't the case for fathers.
In the study, 431 parents of premature babies were screened for depression when their child was admitted to the NICU, discharged, and then 14 days and 30 days following leaving the hospital. Researchers found that over that time, mothers depression symptoms decreased over ten times but fathers scored roughly the same. In other words, mothers' mental health improved once they were able to take their baby home—but fathers remained just as anxious a month after taking their child home as they were when their baby was admitted to the NICU.
"The unanticipated difference we found in the trajectory of depression symptoms between mothers and fathers after bringing their preemie home underscores the importance of reaching out to fathers, who might not even be aware that they need help or know where to turn when in persistent distress," said lead author Craig F. Garfield, MD, MAPP, Founder and Director of Family & Child Health Innovations Program at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
"We need programs in the NICU that universally screen both parents for depression, proactively educate the family about potential symptoms and offer mental health support during this stressful time in the NICU, leading up to discharge and after going home."
We're glad that hospitals and communities are finally having conversations about mental health and maternity. It's important that fathers aren't left out of these conversations, too.
"Our findings point to the need for increased attention to the mental health of new fathers, during their baby's NICU stay and after discharge," said Dr. Garfield. "This is crucial, not only for the well-being of new parents but also for the optimal development of their child."
What are the signs of postpartum depression?
Postpartum mental health issues aren't always obvious—remember that it's not your job to diagnose yourself. Your job is to get in front of a provider or mental health therapist. That's it.
Here are signs to look out for (excerpted from The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama):
- Feeling sad for long periods of time without an easy-to-pinpoint cause
- Lack of desire to do the things you used to love
- Difficulty getting out of bed
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Lack of motivation
- Feeling guilty often
- Anger or rage
- Worrying about things that seem odd or that you did not use to be worried about
- Repetitive thoughts or actions, such as the need to clean something over and over or ensure that a door is locked multiple times
- Fear of being left alone with your baby
- Reliving difficult aspects of your birth
- Not wanting to talk or think about your birth at all
- Inability to make decisions
- Periods of being extremely energized (lots of talking, moving, cleaning)
- Feeling invincible or that you have powers beyond human ability
- Intrusive and disturbing thoughts; violent thoughts. Examples might be:
- "My baby doesn't love me."
- "I am not a good mom."
- "I want to run away."
- "I don't deserve to be happy."
- "Something bad is going to happen to my baby. I know it."
- "My family would be less burdened if I weren't around."
- Unable to sit still
- Not feeling bonded to your baby
If you have any concerns about your mental health—or your partner's—please seek help. Even if what worries you isn't on this list or even if you gave birth years ago. Know that you can always go to the emergency room or call 911 if you have thoughts of harming yourself or others.
The bottom line?
We know that when mothers receive the help they need for postpartum depression, their babies benefit. Let's commit to taking care of dads, too. If we're serious about helping families navigate the complex waters of postpartum depression, we need to make sure everyone receives the help they need—and that includes fathers.