What does paternal postpartum depression even mean? Is it a thing?
It’s a dad who experiences depression or anxiety during the first 12 months of his baby’s life. Even though it’s not talked about a lot, it is a real condition that has real consequences.
The Journal of the American Medical Association published a meta-analysis of 43 studies that documented depression in fathers. They found that “prenatal and postpartum depression was evident in about 10% of men” … That’s 1,000 new dads every day!
The study also found that men’s depression was higher in the 3- to 6-month postpartum period, which is often when the demands of life are seemingly supposed to return to normal, but you’re still not sleeping enough, still finding a new normal with your partner, and your life quite frankly might still seem turned upside down.
Paternal depression was also found to be correlated with maternal depression. Which means if mom is struggling, there’s a higher chance that dad is too. If that’s the case, couples counseling can be helpful as you transition from a couple to a new family of three.
Paternal Postpartum Depression Can Sound like:
- “I was ready to support my wife with postpartum depression—I had no idea I would be the one struggling.”
- “The pressure just kept mounting … I had to be totally ON while at work, and then come home and be totally ON with the baby to give my wife a break. I wasn’t sleeping and I couldn’t keep up with all of these new demands.”
- “Man, that baby changed everything. I suddenly felt I never had a second alone to myself, I was getting pulled in ten different directions, and I didn’t even recognize my exhausted wife, who hasn’t touched me in nine months.”
- “I feel guilty, but I miss the way life was before the baby was born.”
- “I thought I was a strong guy, I had no idea a little baby could un-do me like this. I don’t even recognize myself any more.”
These are the thoughts that many new dads have shared with me. They’re struggling with paternal postpartum depression, which is more common than you may think.
Paternal Postpartum Depression Can Look like:
- Sitting in the car for a long time before coming in the house after a long day of work—it’s the feeling of dread of having to sweep in and make the baby stop crying when you really feel like crying yourself.
- Working constantly—anything to justify being away from a crying baby and overwhelmed mom
- Irritability, defeat, frustration, and fatigue
- Crying, yelling, or isolating]
- Numbing the depression with anything that take the edge off: drinking, pot, working, gambling, shopping, planning, chaos.
Factors that can contribute to depression in new or soon-to-be dads:
- Personal or family history of depression or other mental health diagnoses
- Mounting stress in multiple areas:
- at work
- at home
- as a husband to a nursing mom
- increased financial pressures
- Scarcity of time – the feeling that there’s never enough time to rest, be with your spouse, hang out with friends, or do something you enjoy
- Lack of sleep
- Feeling excluded from the mom and baby bond while feeling helpless if mom is nursing
- Worries about being a dad … you either want to be a better or different dad than the one you had, or you want to live up to your dad’s legacy for your baby
And one other big contributing factor: fluctuating hormones. It is well known that women’s hormones fluxgate a lot during pregnancy and the postpartum period … and men’s do too.
Studies have shown that Dads’ hormones also fluctuate:
- a spike in oxytocin (known as the love hormone as it contributes to bonding, empathy, and altruism)
- a decline in testosterone after baby is born, allowing them to become cuddly and responsive to baby’s cries, and an increase in prolactin
- The result? Dads with lower testosterone and higher prolactin felt a greater need to respond to baby’s cries
Due to the combination of Dad’s hormonal changes and the neurochemical changes that occur in the brain as a result of sleep deprivation and stress, depression and anxiety symptoms are possible.
If Dad is struggling with paternal postpartum depression, it can decrease his involvement with baby. Studies have shown that even in the earliest stages of life, a father’s involvement with the newborn reduces the risk of illness and helps baby’s social, mental, and educational development.
Treatment is Possible
Paternal postpartum depression is often not something a guy can just “get over”—at least not in a lasting, healing, and adaptive way.
Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders are just as common, and just as real, as other medical problems. They can also have just as devastating consequences to the ares of our lives that matter most: our relationship to our loved ones and ourself.