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Fathers get the baby blues just as bad over preterm birth

Fathers and mothers are equally likely to be distressed by the possibility of their baby being born early, according to new research.

Previous research has demonstrated that fathers too sometimes get the ‘baby blues,’ but a new, ongoing study from the University of Frankfurt in Germany found that roughly the same percentage of fathers and mothers developed depression after the mother was hospitalized for being at risk of an early delivery.

The study found that about the same number of couples who were at risk of a preterm birth, but made it to full term, and people whose babies were born early experienced depression.

The fathers’ symptoms of perinatal depression – which can occur during pregnancy and through the first year of the baby’s life – lingered for at least six weeks after the births of their babies.

Fathers are just as likely to develop the baby blues as mothers are when their partners are admitted to the hospital for being at risk of a preterm delivery, a new study finds. The study’s author says this is evidence against the common belief that fathers don’t feel as strongly for their developing babies as mothers do

In Germany, about six percent of all men report being depressed. The rates of depression among the study’s control group of fathers whose partners were not admitted for risk of preterm delivery were closely aligned with that, at eight percent.

When their partners were admitted to the hospital as at-risk, 35 percent of fathers scored positively for depression.

Lead researcher Sally Shulze says that her study’s findings are ‘contrary to the popular belief that the mother has a stronger emotional bond with a developing baby.’

Though the study itself does not explore the causes of this phenomenon, Schulze suspects that fathers’ depression may be attributable to the changing roles of men in Western society.

Women are often hospitalized when they are at risk for preterm delivery, so counselling services are accessible to them. For fathers, help is not so easy to come by.

While expecting mothers are in the hospital, ‘partners kind of boost up management of the home,’ says Schulze, ‘so there should definitely be more flexible offerings of psychological support.’

At the University of Frankfurt hospital, where Shulze conducted her study of 69 couples, she says that they do their best to provide counselling out of the research budget, ‘but nobody pays us to do that.’

In other hospitals in Germany – a country which, she says, has quite conservative views of parental roles – ‘to create a situation where every couple that is engaged with preterm birth receives psychological counselling is not possible right now.’

Understanding the ‘baby blues’ 

Perinatal depression can occur during pregnancy, around the time a child is born, and within the first year after. 

Both mothers and fathers can experience the baby blues.

Perinatal depression can affect mood. Watch for:

  • anger
  • anxiety
  • guilt
  • hopelessness
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities 
  • mood swings 
  • panic attacks 

Physical symptoms may include: 

  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  •  restlessness

Other symptoms include: 

  • crying 
  • irritability 
  • weight gain or loss
  • difficulty focusing 
  • unwanted thoughts 

The study found that it made little difference if the baby ultimately made it to full term our not; about the same percentage of fathers in each group was depressed.

‘it seems that just the risk of preterm birth already exerts a psychological burden,’ says Schulze. She adds that men even reported a slightly more elevated rate of depression than did women.

Though the rates of depression among the men went back to five percent six months after their babies were born, Schulze says that the earliest parts of the babies’ lives, when men were still reporting elevated rates of depression, are the most important.

‘The period when [babies are] really little is when there’s a really high effect, and people who are depressed tend to be either too withdrawn or intrusive,’ says Schulze.

Either extreme can interfere with the baby’s ability to self-soothe. People who withdraw when they are depressed don’t provide the support the baby needs as it learns to self-soothe, and people who become intrusive ‘can’t stop touching’ their babies, she says.

‘It’s ironic that both behaviors have this effect, but it’s not a healthy environment for the baby and [depression] tends to decrease responsiveness to the interaction.’

The researchers attempted to identify which of the partners’ moods might be influencing the other’s, but the data didn’t line up conclusively.

Schulze says that this may have to do with the inherent differences in the ways that men and women report depression.

The study will continue through the first two years of the babies’ lives, and Schulze plans to focus on data that is more accessible for both sexes, like scores of burn out and stress.