Being a new parent is definitely rewarding – but it is also can be really hard. It’s a big transition and one that many new parents struggle with. Even if they’re very excited. Even if they’re in love with their new baby.
Even if it’s what they always wanted.
We now know that 1 in 7 women experience postpartum depression, or other perinatal mood disorder. But studies show that, following the birth of their child, 1 in 10 men also experience postpartum depression. Researchers and doctors are unclear about whether this is truly postpartum depression, or whether it is a depression that happens to occur in the postpartum period for men. However, the result - a depressed Dad - is the same - and can have lasting effects on his partner and children.
In order to separate the two disorders, some researchers (and myself) call it Paternal Postpartum Depression, or PPPD. But just like with Moms, Dads can show symptoms as early as the first trimester of pregnancy and through one full year postpartum. Unfortunately, our society follows the belief systems (myths!) that men aren’t entitled to these feelings and that they should be stoic and in control of their emotions. In essence, that they don't get depressed. But PPPD is very real. And it can have lasting effects on a family, so it deserves attention too.
Here are 5 things to consider when it comes to a new Dad’s mental health:
The risk factors aren't clear
Because it's a relatively new field of research, the causes and risk factors are still unclear. New research shows that males experience a dip in testosterone after the birth of their child. Several studies have recently proven a long suspected role that hormones play for women as well, but we're beginning to understand that this is not the only factor. Just like for moms, symptoms of postpartum depression can develop due to medical history and social factors. Many Dads report experiencing a significant increase in stress and familial pressure after their baby is born. They are often the sole breadwinner (if even for a short period), are more likely to be unsure of their ability to care for their baby, are adjusting to the sleep deprivation and adapting to the changing relationship roles between themselves and their partner. This can leave them feeling very alone, overwhelmed and confused. Each of these factors are important and likely play a role in the development of PPPD.
Symptoms in men can look different
It can be challenging to spot symptoms of postpartum depression in Dads without knowing what to look for. During pregnancy, most women are taught to look for signs of sadness/weepiness, anxiety and overwhelm in themselves but Dad’s postpartum depression often manifests in a different way. Although some Dads will experience the classic symptoms of sadness, many will be irritable, angry or quick to lose their temper. Like women, they may begin to experience symptoms of anxiety - like heart palpitations, worry, shortness of breath or even full blown panic attacks. But their symptoms of depression and anxiety may also cause them to withdrawal from home. They may start to stay at work longer, make more plans with their friends or co-workers, or even just “check out” when they are home (physically present but not otherwise).
A partner’s involvement is often critical for help
Since women tend to have a bigger support system and are often more intuitive to shifts in their partner's behavior, it is often the new mother who will notice that her partner “isn’t acting like himself anymore.” Because men may not be aware of why their feeling differently, they may not know to reach out for help. Even more likely, because of societal pressures to "be a man", they may be even more reluctant to reach out for help. But recognizing their symptoms and reaching out for help is key to improvement - and the overall wellbeing of both Dad and the rest of the family. Therefore, if you’re concerned about your partner, definitely try to bring it up with him and encourage him to speak to his doctor.
Even mild depression can have serious repercussions
If fathers are experiencing symptoms of depression after their baby comes home, it's important that they seek both professional help and community. Just like Moms, Dads need to be healthy in order to be able to properly care for their family. But, it's more than that. Studies have shown that PPPD changes the way Dads interact with their kids – more so than it does with Moms with PPD - and that this lack of interaction can have lasting effects on the child’s behavior as they grow. One study showed that children from a family with a depressed Dad were more likely to have emotional or behavioral problems (and 1/4 of all children if both parents were depressed). It sounds scary, right? But this is why getting help is so crucial.
What to do if you need help
If you (or a loved one) are experiencing these symptoms, there are many positive steps you can take to make a difference. Here are just a few:
1. Create Special bonding time with just you and baby. Set aside time where Dad and baby can be alone. Even if it's tough at first, it can help a new Dad feel more secure in their parenting abilities and more bonded to their baby.
2. Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat well, meditate, get acupuncture, massage and time with friends. Most importantly - get some sleep! Many families I have worked with trade off weekend mornings for sleeping in and relaxing in bed.
3. Talk about it. Communicate your feelings with your partner. Opening up can help to normalize your feelings and open the door for your partner to be supportive to your needs.
4. Connect with other PPPD Dads. Postpartum Support International has great resources for Dads - including a Facebook group just for Dads, a monthly chat with an expert and a Boot Camp to help support Dads and help them feel more comfortable in caring for their new baby.
5. Talk to a counselor. Most therapists who specialize in perinatal mental health are well equipped to help support Dad throughout the transition to fatherhood. Processing your feelings with a professional gives you a safe space to be open and honest with yourself and to learn how to cope with your symptoms better.
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