Dads' postnatal depression affects babies

Dads' postnatal depression affects babies

Fathers who suffer from ‘postnatal’ depression could be passing their negativity on to their babies, new research suggests.

An Oxford University study has found that new dads who are depressed interact differently with their infants.

They “tend to be more negative and to focus critically on themselves” rather than their babies when talking to them.

Study author Dr Vaheshta Sethna said: “We found there were differences in the way depressed dads talked to their babies compared to fathers without depression.

“It is possible that babies will pick up on this negativity, that they will pick up on these cues even early in life. For example, the baby may have to respond differently to get attention.”

The study, at the university’s Department of Psychiatry, is the first to look at the speech of new dads with depression in their early interactions with their babies. 

It focused on 38 fathers, half of whom were depressed, and asked them to play with and speak to their three month old infants for three minutes.

The children were sat in their infant seats and the face-to-face interaction was videoed.

The dads with depression were more negative about themselves and their infants – even allowing for the baby’s fretfulness. And their words focused more on themselves and their own feelings than on the child’s.

Examples included: ‘I’m not able to make you smile’; ‘Daddy’s not as good as Mummy’; ‘Are you tired?’; ‘Oh-oh, Daddy hasn’t lasted very long, has he?’ and ‘Can’t think of anything to do all of a sudden’.

Published today in the journal Psychological Medicine, the research suggests that babies of postnatally depressed fathers are at “increased risk of developing emotional and behavioural problems” in the same way as infants of mums with postnatal depression.

An estimated five per cent of new fathers are thought to get depressed after the birth of the baby - about half the rate for mothers.

The fathers in the study were all of a similar age and educational attainment and recruited in maternity units in Oxford and Milton Keynes. The researchers monitoring the videos were not aware of which dads were depressed.

The proportion of negative comments rose from an average of 11 per cent among fathers without depression to 19 per cent in dads with depression. 

The proportion of the dads’ comments that was focused on the baby dropped from 72 per cent to 60 per cent, while the proportion that focused on themselves rose from 14 per cent to 24 per cent.

Researcher Dr Paul Ramchandani said: “We want to try and work out the processes that lead to poorer outcomes in the children so we can work out where parents can be helped out.

“More research has been done with mums with postnatal depression and there are a range of early interventions to help them in the way they talk and play with their babies. Depression in fathers is less well recognised and fewer fathers tend to come forward for help.

“Interventions are often based on playing parents video feedback on how they are with their babies. We can show parents how their children are communicating back, helping them recognise this and respond.”

But he insisted not enough research has yet been done to prove whether differences in the way fathers talk to their babies leads to poorer emotional development and behavioural problems later. 

Dr Ramchandani said: “That’s the next step. It’s important to remember that depression among parents doesn’t mean that the children are going to have problems. Most do not.”