Depression in fathers after the birth of a child is linked to troubling behaviors in their toddlers three years later, according to a new study.

Share story

Once dismissed as “baby blues,” depression after the birth of a child is now recognized as a serious condition affecting the mental health of both mothers and children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises doctors to check for signs of postpartum depression when mothers bring in their babies for checkups.

New dads get sad, too, (about one of out of 10, according to a 2010 study­), but there’s much less research on postpartum depression in fathers, and they’re not likely to be included in such screenings.

Now a new study shows that what’s true for depressed mothers also is true for fathers: Their toddlers are more likely to feel anxious and sad, and act aggressively.

The authors of the study, published online this month in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, analyzed questionnaire data from 199 couples with children between 3 and 4 years old living in a Midwest community.

The participants were in their mid-30s, mostly married and mostly white with average yearly incomes of between about $70,000 and $80,000. The group had participated in a previous depression study around the time their children were born.

About 19 percent of women and 7 percent of men met criteria for major depression after their children were born.

The researchers found that while parents fighting with each other might contribute to depression, it was the depression itself that set the stage for later child behavior problems.

The study examined correlations between parental depression and toddler behaviors and was not designed to establish whether the first caused the second. For example, it did not account for potential genetic or other biological explanations.

But parents who had suffered postpartum depression were more likely to become depressed again when their children were toddlers and it was the later depression that researchers associated with the behavior problems.

That’s why early detection is as important for fathers as it is for mothers, says lead researcher Sheehan D. Fisher, an instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Fathers a lot of times don’t go through the maternal child health care system where the mothers are screened,” he said. “So what I did was develop a proxy measure where the mother could rate the father’s mood during her normal appointment. Then if the father had a higher score, there would be a way for the doctor to give a referral from there.”