Can dads get postpartum depression?

Postpartum depression in dads is real and just as serious as when mothers get it. Know the symptoms of paternal postpartum depression and when to get help.
Postpartum depression in dads is real and just as serious as when mothers get it. Know the symptoms of paternal postpartum depression and when to get help.

Postpartum depression has deservedly received much attention in recent years. However, when people talk about it, they tend to focus on mothers. While 10 to 15 percent of moms experience postpartum depression, studies show up to 10 percent of dads struggle with it as well.

Dads often think they’re supposed to be protectors – strong and stoic. However, you don’t need two X chromosomes to suffer from postpartum depression. A woman’s fluctuating hormones play a role in postpartum depression, but research has shown that fathers also experience hormonal changes during and after pregnancy. When you pair hormonal changes with the neurochemical changes that occur in the brain as a result of the sleep deprivation and stress that new parents experience, the stage is set for potential depression.

Research has shown that depression in fathers is associated with:

  • Poorer parenting practices
  • Less attention to baby’s health and well-check visits
  • Higher risk of behavioral problems in preschool-age children
  • Children with greater physical and mental health problems
  • Poorer family and marital relationships

Most doctors discuss postpartum depression with moms during a postpartum visit. But there is no such check-up for men. Because the mental health of parents greatly impacts a child’s well-being, we must do a better job of recognizing and treating postpartum depression – in moms and dads.

What triggers paternal postpartum depression?

Women often show symptoms of postpartum depression within four to six weeks after delivery, but they can appear as late as three months after birth. Men can experience paternal postpartum depression at any time, although a 2010 meta-analysis of studies, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found it to be relatively higher when the baby was three to six months old.

A variety of factors may play a role in dad developing postpartum depression, including:

  • Feeling disconnected from mom and baby: Dads want to be part of the newborn experience, but often they feel like they’re on the “outside.” Moms may not always realize they’re excluding dad from caring for the baby. They may think he will “do it wrong.” Or they may be so caught up in bonding and caring for the baby, they fail to recognize that dad wants time with the little one, too.
  • Hormones: Research has shown that dads may experience declines in testosterone during a partner’s pregnancy. Researchers suspect this may be nature’s way of preparing them to become fathers. Testosterone is associated with aggression and taking risks. Lower levels of it may encourage more nurturing behaviors.
  • Partner’s depression: Up to half of men with depressed partners show signs of depression as well.
  • Personal or family history of depression: Any history of depression or other mental illness raises the risk of postpartum depression.
  • Psychological adjustment to parenthood: Becoming a parent requires significant coping skills. This can be overwhelming for moms and dads.
  • Sleep deprivation: Most new parents underestimate the role that lack of sleep can play in developing symptoms of anxiety and depression. They also often underestimate just how sleep deprived they are!

Other factors that may contribute to paternal postpartum depression include a colicky or premature baby, financial stress, relationship problems, recent loss or trauma, and lack of social support for parenting, such as not having parental leave at work.

What are the signs of paternal postpartum depression?

Postpartum depression can look different in men than it does in women. Men may experience some of the “traditional” symptoms – fatigue and changes in sleep or appetite – but they often exhibit fewer outwardly emotional expressions, such as crying.

Common symptoms for paternal postpartum depression include:

  • Irritability
  • Withdrawing from relationships
  • Working a lot more or a lot less
  • Low motivation
  • Poor concentration
  • Increase in impulsive or risk-taking behavior, including turning to substances such as alcohol or prescription drugs
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle aches, stomach, or digestion issues
  • Anger, sudden outbursts, or violent behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you experience any of these symptoms – or you notice them in a new father – and they intensify or last longer than two weeks, talk with your physician about possible treatment options.

How is paternal postpartum depression treated?

Sometimes, self-help is just not enough. Professional treatment may be necessary.

Using one or a combination of therapies may help fathers cope with the stressful postpartum period:

  • Psychotherapy, or talk therapy
  • Couples therapy, especially if both parents are depressed or the relationship is suffering
  • Medication that works on the mind, behavior, or mood
  • Complementary or alternative therapies, such as exercise, massage, or acupuncture

How can family members support dads who have postpartum depression?

The first step is to recognize what’s going on with dad and take it seriously. If you notice a personality shift in a dad with a new baby, encourage him to be screened by a mental health professional and referred for appropriate treatment.

Other tips to support dad:

  • Take shifts so you both get adequate sleep. Family members of single parents can step in to make sure mom or dad gets as much rest as possible.
  • Encourage dad to be involved with the baby. Let him help with bathing, dressing, or feeding whenever possible.
  • It’s important for couples to spend time together. Understand that it’s common for your sex life to change after having a baby.

Finally, make sure dad knows that postpartum depression is common and not his fault, and that he’s not alone. And dads, don’t worry about appearing “manly.” Asking for help and being the best father you can be is as manly as you can get.

If you experience symptoms of postpartum depression, we can help. Yaprak Harrison, M.D., Ph.D., is available at our clinic for consultation and guidance. Request an appointment here or by calling 214-635-8300.

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