Dads’ Dark Side: New Fathers with Depression Spank Their Babies More

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Christian Weigel/Corbis

In recent history, the faces of postpartum depression — Brooke Shields, Gwyneth Paltrow and Marie Osmond — have been largely female. But new research shows that new dads experience baby blues too: 7% of new fathers reported recent major depression, and many of them said they had spanked their 1-year-old babies.

The new study [PDF] published Monday in the journal Pediatrics focused on the impact of postpartum depression on specific parenting behaviors. Researchers analyzed interview data on 1,746 fathers who were living with 1-year-old babies in 1999-2000 in 16 major U.S. cities. The researchers found that 41% of those who reported feeling depressed spanked their babies, compared with 13% of dad without depression. (More on Why Spoiled Babies Turn Out to Be Smarter, Kinder Kids)

The authors write:

This finding is particularly concerning given that children were only 1 year of age in our study, a developmental stage when children are unlikely to understand the connection between their behavior and subsequent punishment and when spanking is more likely to cause physical injury.

Further, the researchers found, depressed fathers were less than half as likely as non-depressed fathers to read stories to their children.

Postpartum depression is more common in women — affecting up to 25% of new moms — but the problem may be more serious in men than doctors recognize. And while the current study uses data from a decade ago, the findings may be particularly relevant today, with so many men unable to find work; unemployment is highly correlated with depression. (More on Why the Recession May Trigger More Depression in Men)

Still, the researchers note a silver lining: 77% of the depressed fathers in the study said they had spoken with their child’s doctor in the past year — indeed fathers are increasingly sharing the responsibilities of child care, including taking their kids to routine doctor visits — which means pediatricians have a chance to check in on fathers’ mental well-being.

“The finding that the majority of depressed fathers reported talking with their 1-year-old children’s doctor in the previous year,” the authors said, “suggests an opportunity for pediatric providers to engage depressed fathers.” (More on Pediatricians Should Start Screening for Postpartum Depression)

The researchers, along with the authors of an accompanying editorial [PDF] in Pediatrics, recommend that children’s doctors discuss specific parenting behaviors with new fathers, consider screening them for depression and direct those who are depressed to appropriate treatment.