Paternal depression in the postnatal period and child development: A prospective population study


Most research has focused on the effects of maternal depression on early child development.  Little attention has been paid to the role of paternal depression in child development. The symptoms of depression that can have a negative impact on child development are irritability, low mood and energy, and feelings of hopelessness. fatherandchild2The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ASSPAC) follows children and their parents in Bristol, England from early in pregnancy and throughout childhood.  This report was about 8,431 fathers, 11, 833 mothers and 10,024 children involved in a study of parental depression and child outcomes. Each parent’s influence on their children’s behavior was tested.

The work done by the team lead by Paul Ramchandani started from the established body of research demonstrating “consistent associations between maternal postnatal depression and an increased risk of cognitive, emotional and behavioural problems in offspring”.  They looked to address the lack of existing research in response to recent work which “which has demonstrated that depression also affects 5-10% of fathers and that it is associated with an increased risk of behavioural and cognitive difficulties in children.  This effect is found to be independent of the impact of maternal depression and may be particularly potent when the depression occurs very early in the child’s life, in what may be a sensitive period of development.”

The study sought to “investigate the associations between paternal depression and parental couple functioning and child temperament” in early childhood.

One of the team’s most striking findings is that “the transition to parenthood is associated with a marked deterioration in marital quality.”

After taking the mothers’ depression into account, this study found that depression in fathers during their child’s early life was associated with increased risk of behavioural problems in their children at age 3, particularly in boys. The boys were more likely than the girls to have hyperactivity and conduct problems, but the boys and girls had about the same elevated risk for emotional problems like worry and sadness.

A series of studies by Dr Ramchandani and his team as part of the longitudinal study over seven years have demonstrated that “depression in fathers in the postnatal period was significantly associated with psychiatric disorder in their children 7 years later, most notably oppositional-defiant/conduct disorders, after adjusting for maternal depression and paternal education level.  A part history of severe depression, and high prenatal symptom scores for depression and anxiety were the strongest predictors of paternal depression in the postnatal period” offering a potential opportunity for public health preventive intervention.

Click here to read this research study.

Click here to read an update of the study participants at age 7.