Depressed Dads Affect Their Kids Even Before Born

By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 7, 2013 -- Children whose dads were depressed during the pregnancy are more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems at age 3, new research suggests.

The finding comes from an ongoing study of more than 30,000 Norwegian children. When their mothers were nearly halfway through their pregnancy, their fathers completed a mental health questionnaire that assessed anxiety and depression symptoms. The researchers also collected information from the parents about the mothers' pre- and postnatal mental health and the children's emotional and behavioral development at 36 months of age.

Three percent of the fathers had high levels of psychological distress, and their children had higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems -- even after the researchers took into account other possible contributing factors, such as the dad's age, education, and marital status, and the mother's mental health.

"This study suggests that some risk of future child emotional, behavioral, and social problems can be identified during pregnancy," says researcher Anne Lise Kvalevaag, PsyD, a PhD candidate at the University of Bergen.

The researchers, whose report appears in the journal Pediatrics, cited several possible explanations for a link between fathers' prenatal psychological distress and young children's emotional and behavioral problems:

  • The children may have inherited a genetic susceptibility to such problems from their father.
  • The expectant fathers' depression may have negatively impacted the pregnant mothers' mental health.
  • A dad's prenatal depression might simply predict he'll be depressed after the baby is born.

"Fathers who have mental health difficulties during the prenatal period are likely to continue to have those difficulties during the child's infancy, which may directly affect young children's development," says psychologist Elizabeth Harvey, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Harvey published a study last month in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology about the link between early fathering and children's behavior problems. The study found that fathers' depression when the children were 3 predicted behavior problems when they were 6.

Depressed Dads Depress Moms

In a study published in Maternal and Child Health Journal last August, Michael Weitzman, MD, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at New York University, found that depression in fathers was the single biggest predictor of depression in mothers. The study involved more than 7,000 U.S. moms and dads who lived with children aged 5 to 17.

In another study of approximately 22,000 kids in that same age group, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2011, Weitzman found that living with a father who had symptoms of depression and other mental health problems was associated with higher rates of emotional or behavioral problems in children.

Some of the negative consequences scientists attribute to the mother's depression might actually be due to the father's depression, Weitzman says. In addition, he says, depressed parents may be more likely to report their children as being depressed than non-depressed parents of kids who have the same behaviors.

Studies that follow fathers and children with or without psychological distress over time are needed to clarify the relationship between the mental health of dads and their offspring, Kvalevaag and her colleagues write.

While the Norwegian study has continued to collect mental health information from the mothers and children, it only questioned the fathers at 17 or 18 weeks into the pregnancy, Kvalevaag says.

Unfortunately, Weitzman says, "depression in fathers is a profoundly overlooked public health problem."


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SOURCES: Kvalevaag, A. Pediatrics, 2013, study received ahead of print. Harvey, E. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, published online Dec. 27, 2012. Weitzman, M. Maternal and Child Health Journal, published online Aug. 10, 2012. Weitzman, M. Pediatrics, published online Nov. 7, 2011. Anne Lise Kvalevaag, PsyD, University of Bergen, Norway. Elizabeth Harvey, PhD, University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Michael Weitzman MD, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, New York University.

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