January 7, 2013
(USA TODAY) -- The mental health of a child's mother during pregnancy is widely considered a risk factor for emotional and behavioral problems later in the child's life. Now a new study finds that the father's mental health during the pregnancy also plays a role.
The study of nearly 32,000 children in Norway, reported today in Pediatrics, is the largest yet to suggest that children's risk for mental health problems may be identified early on by examining prenatal mental health of the fathers.
It found that kids whose fathers scored high in psychological distress, depression and anxiety at week 17 or 18 of the baby's gestation had higher levels of emotional and behavioral difficulties at age 3, including disruptive behavior, anxiety and problems getting along with other children.
Information was collected from fathers who answered a screening questionnaire about their mental health status during the pregnancy. Mothers later answered questions about their children's development and difficulties.
Even after controlling for factors such as the father's age, marital status, physical ailments, alcohol use, cigarette smoking and the mother's mental health, researchers found the same association between expectant fathers' mental health and problems developing in the child, says lead study author Anne Lise Kvalevaag of Helse Fonna Hospital in Haugesund, Norway.
The data collected did not address how or why the association exists, but several "possible mechanisms" could be at work, she says. There could be a genetically transmitted risk to the child, or depression in the father could affect the mental health of the mother in such a way that the development of the child is affected. Another possibility: The father's mental state before the child's birth could predict his mental state later, which "may also account for some of the associations found," she says.
Only 3% of the fathers in the study had high levels of mental health problems, so the findings don't mean that every child with a depressed father will have problems, says James Paulson, an associate professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. "But when this is viewed across a large population, the effects of prenatal paternal distress are a substantial public health problem." Paulson, who studies depression in families, was not involved in the new study.
He says researchers have learned in the past decade "that paternal postpartum depression presents many of the same risks to developing children that are well-documented in maternal postpartum depression."
The finding that prenatal depression in fathers poses risks that are similar to postpartum depression "mirrors what we know about depression in pregnancy for mothers, but which hasn't previously been documented in fathers."
"For parents and physicians, the message should be clear," he adds. "This suggests that physicians should screen for depression early and often, and make the appropriate referral as soon as it's detected."
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