Can Dad’s Distress During Mom’s Pregnancy Affect Newborns?

He doesn't carry the child, but a father's prenatal anxiety may have an affect on children's later behavior.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

He doesn’t carry the child, but a father’s prenatal anxiety may have an affect on children’s later behavior.

For years, research centered around how a mother’s mental health could impact her child’s development, including later behavioral problems, but the latest research suggests that it’s not just mom’s mental state that may be important.

Although studies on paternal influences are still scarce, a 2011 study, for example, found that a child’s chance of developing behavioral or emotional problems increases by 11% if his father has signs of depression. But those studies involved children growing up in households with one or more depressed parents. But the current analysis, published in the journal Pediatrics, looked at the role of men’s mental health during their partner’s pregnancy, and found a link between dad’s mental health and their child’s behavioral development.

(MORE: Older Fathers Linked to Kids’ Autism and Schizophrenia Risk)

The Norwegian researchers looked at data from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study that follows 31,663 children and includes self-reported mental health information from fathers in week 17 or 18 of pregnancy. The scientists found that around four and half months into pregnancy, 3% of fathers reported high levels of psychological distress and this anxiety was strongly linked to their child’s behavioral problems at age 3. Kids whose fathers had higher levels of distress had more behavioral and emotional issues overall.

“The findings from this study suggest that some risk for future child emotional and behavioral problems can be identified during pregnancy, and as such the results are of importance for health professionals and policy makers in their planning of health care in the prenatal period,” the study authors write.

But how does a father’s stress influence a growing fetus? The authors offer a couple of speculative reasons. Depression in expectant fathers may impact the mental health of their pregnant partners and cause hormonal changes in mothers that could influence their pregnancy. They also acknowledge that a father’s mental health prior to the birth is likely to predict his mental health after his child is born, and, as previous studies have shown, children raised by parents with mental stress could negatively impact the toddlers’ behavior.

(MORE: Why Fathers Have Lower Levels of Testosterone)

“There is dramatically less literature on the influence of fathers’ depression than for mothers,” says Michael Weitzman, a professor of pediatric medicine at New York University who authored the 2011 study on fathers’ depression and their kids’ behavioral problems but was not involved in the current study. “What does this say about us as a society that we don’t think about fathers this way? We don’t think about men and their profound influence on children.”

Weitzman and his team found that the biggest predictor of depression in mothers is living with a depressed spouse. It’s a somewhat obvious, but meaningful finding that has not been addressed in relation to child development.

“In the midst of the recession, and the large number of people returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, no one has thought to frame this in terms of a child issue. One of the biggest predictors of depression in fathers is losing a job,” says Weitzman.

(MORE: Kids of Older Fathers and Grandfathers May Inherit Longevity)

The researchers acknowledge there is a need for more research in this area, especially long-term studies with a larger number of parent-child pairs and more objectively measured data on mental health status. But the findings open a new window into another potential contributor to childhood behavior issues that could lead to helpful interventions that relieve some of the stress that all parents, both moms and dads, feel when starting or adding to their family.