March 14, 2011 -- It’s not uncommon for fathers to experience at least one episode of major depression within the first year of a child’s life, a new study shows.
The study also found that dads with depression were nearly four times more likely to spank their babies and about half as likely to read to them, compared to fathers who were not depressed.
That’s important because previous studies have shown that physical punishments like spanking may lead children to become more aggressive, and reading to children helps kids develop language skills.
“This study, I think, is very important because it documents what happens in families when fathers are depressed. We have very little evidence about that,” says James F. Paulson, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk.
“This idea that fathers who are depressed are more likely to use a harsh parenting tactic and also less likely to read to their children really points to concrete effects of depression in the father on the family,” says Paulson, who has studied paternal depression but was not involved in the current research.
When Dad Gets Depressed
For the study, researchers recruited parents having babies at 75 hospitals in 20 large cities around the U.S. between 1998 and 2000.
More than 1,700 fathers who reported living with their children “all or most of the time” were interviewed by researchers when their babies were 1 year old.
To assess depression, they were asked if, during the past year, there had been at least two weeks when they felt sad, blue, or depressed or had lost interest in most things like hobbies, work, or fun activities.
Overall, about 7% of men in the study reported an episode consistent with major depression in the previous year.
Compared to fathers who didn’t report persistent low moods, depressed fathers were more likely to report substance abuse and more likely to be unemployed.
“Historically, and there are many studies that back this up, unemployment is one of the strongest risk factors for depression in men,” says study researcher R. Neal Davis, MD, a pediatrician at Intermountain Healthcare in Murray, Utah.
Davis and his team also found that depressed fathers were less than half as likely to read stories to their children and nearly four times more likely to report spanking their young children, compared to dads who said they were not depressed.
Those differences remained even when researchers accounted for other things that might affect parenting skills, like age, race, household poverty, education level, and employment and marital status.
The study is published in Pediatrics.
Doctors Can Do More to Support Dads
“Studies like this that have a really good sample, are very well done, and really show in this time period, which is a pretty key time period -- the first year of life, a difference between depressed dads and nondepressed dads, I think add to the evidence and the need for pediatrics to start to consider dad,” says Craig F. Garfield, MD, a pediatrician at NorthShore University Health System and assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University, in Chicago.
Garfield wrote a commentary that accompanies the study.
He notes that one of the key findings, that 77% of depressed fathers reported going to at least one doctor’s visit with their kids within the last year, opens the door for pediatricians to make a difference.
“This current recession that we’re in has been called a ‘mancession’ because of the disproportionate number of men who have been laid off. And so as more men are laid off, it’s likely they’ll end up at home,” Garfield tells WebMD. “If they’re at home, number one, they’ll more likely to be with their kids, and number two, they’ll be even more likely to come to the pediatrician’s office.”
Going to a pediatrician with their child, then, appears to be an opportunity for a doctor to help.
But while many pediatricians know to watch for depression in mothers, they are less likely to look for it in men.
“This wasn’t on our radar screen for a long time,” Garfield says. “Parenting is a team event. The more we can do to support both partners on the team, the better the child’s going to be.”