General News Research — 15 January 2013

The mental health of expectant mothers has long been considered a risk factor for emotional and behavioral problems later in a child’s life. A new study, published Jan. 6 in the online journal Pediatrics, now suggests that the mental state of dads-to-be may also put kids at risk for future mental health problems.

“The results of the study point to the fact that the father’s mental health represents a risk factor for child development, whereas the traditional view has been that this risk in large is represented by the mother,” lead study author Anne Lise Kvalevaag told HealthDay News.

“The father’s mental health should therefore be addressed both in research and clinical practice,” added Kvalevaag, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway.

Researchers examined 31,633 children and their parents who were a part of the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study.  Information was collected from fathers who answered a screening questionnaire about their mental health, including anxiety and depression,  during the pregnancy. Mothers later completed surveys about their children’s development and any difficulties that may have surfaced by the time the toddlers reached 36 months.

Even after controlling for such factors as the fathers’ age, marital status, physical ailments, alcohol use, cigarette smoking and mother’s mental health status, researchers found a link between expectant fathers’ mental health and later emotional and behavioral problems in their children. Three percent of the fathers reported high levels of distress and their children had higher levels of mental health problems.

Although the study did not address how or why this correlation exists, researchers offered several possible explanations:

  • The children may have inherited a genetic predisposition to mental health problems from the father.
  • The expectant father’s depression may have had a negative effect on the expectant mother’s mental health.
  • The father’s prenatal psychological distress might be a predictor of depression after the baby is born, which could then impact the child’s mental well-being.

In a USA Today interview, James Paulson, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., noted that 3 percent of fathers with high levels of mental health problems did not mean that every child with a depressed father will have emotional and behavioral issues.

“But, when this is viewed across a large population, the effects of prenatal paternal distress are a substantial public health problem,” added Paulson.

One possible solution: Mothers should be asked how the dad is doing during prenatal doctor’s visits.

“For parents and physicians, the message should be clear,” said Paulson. “We need to be aware of depression [in] both parents from the time a pregnancy is realized. This study suggests that physicians should screen for depression early and often, and make the appropriate referral as soon as it is detected.”

As first appeared in, 7 January 2013


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