The arrival of a new baby is a time of joy and celebration, but also profound change. Unfortunately, not all those changes are positive.
It’s common for new mothers to experience a mild case of baby blues—characterized by worry, unhappiness, or fatigue—in the days after giving birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Usually, these cases improve naturally within two weeks.
But for 13 percent of new mothers, that sadness can evolve into full-blown postpartum depression. Symptoms can vary from person to person but may include intense sadness, feeling disconnected from your baby, or worrying that you’ll hurt the baby.
Why? There’s no single reason, but hormones play a role. Estrogen, for example, plummets after childbirth.
As it turns out, postpartum depression happens to men too. Up to 10 percent of fathers experience postpartum depression in the first year after a baby’s birth, according to a review in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience.
“It’s a multifaceted, complex issue,” says Brandon Eddy, PhD, an assistant professor of couples and family therapy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Men do experience hormonal changes at this time. There’s evidence that men with postpartum depression have lower levels of testosterone.”
But it’s about more than just hormones. “For men—just like for women—postpartum depression is social and emotional too,” Dr. Eddy says.
How to Spot Postpartum Depression in Men
Depression in men often looks different than it does in women. The same is true of postpartum depression.
“In males, it’s often seen as anger,” Dr. Eddy says. “Dad may be frequently agitated, short-tempered, and distant from the rest of the family. He might get really quiet and throw himself into his work or hobbies like video games.”
Sometimes, Dr. Eddy says, it might play out in more destructive ways, such as an affair, heavy drinking, substance abuse, or even aggression or violence.
What else to keep an eye on: Men with a history of depression or whose partner is experiencing maternal postpartum depression may be at higher risk of developing postpartum depression.
How Postpartum Depression Affects the Family
Whatever it looks like, postpartum depression in men can be a problem—not just for the dad, but also for the child.
A father’s postpartum depression is associated with a child’s psychological disorders seven years later, according to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. One such disorder: oppositional defiant disorder, which is an ongoing pattern of uncooperative behavior toward parents and other authority figures.
At any stage, depression in fathers is also associated with behavioral or emotional problems in children, according to a study in Pediatrics. This can include excessive crying in infants and having a hard time getting along with others in children.
“For a lot of dads, this can lead to more relationship difficulties,” Dr. Eddy says. “And dads with postpartum depression have less interaction with their babies, which is so important to a child’s emotional development.”
What You Can Do
New dads and their families may not realize that postpartum depression is a real concern for men.
“They might have the sense that something isn’t right,” Dr. Eddy says. “But they need to know what they’re experiencing is real and valid, and that there’s help out there. Denying it and isolating yourself only makes things worse.”
Here are some steps to take if you’re experiencing signs of postpartum depression as a new dad.
Tag Along for Mom’s Checkup
New fathers often feel excluded from the support services available to mothers, so it’s a good idea to speak up if that’s the case. Mom’s six-week postpartum checkup may include a screening known as the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale.
“Ask the doctor to do a screening for dad as well,” Dr. Eddy suggests. “Dad’s already there—why not evaluate him at the same time?” This can be a good way to get the ball rolling.
Talk It Out
As with any other health issue you might be experiencing, you should also feel free to reach out to your primary care doctor or therapist for any concerning symptoms or any major changes in how you’re able to function in daily life.
If appropriate, your doctor may connect you with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other clinician for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a type of talk therapy that can help relieve symptoms of depression.
“If you’re feeling down and it’s not going away, find a therapist,” Dr. Eddy says. “I’ve seen dads experience positive changes after only a couple of sessions.”
Consider an Antidepressant
Currently, treatment for postpartum depression is the same for men and women. An antidepressant, such as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), may help, according to a review in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience.
But finding the right mental health medication and dosage can be a long, frustrating process of trial and error. If your clinician recommends medication, ask if pharmacogenetic testing (PGx) can help.
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Reach Out to Your Social Network
Sure, you love your family, but it’s also a good idea to interact with people outside of your household. Connecting with others can be therapeutic.
“When you’re experiencing depression, social support is a very big deal,” Dr. Eddy says. “Don’t be afraid to look for help.”
Now’s a great time to call or video chat with friends. You can also look for parent and dad groups in your community, such as City Dads.
Take Care of Your Body
If you’re a new dad, you may not be getting a lot of sleep. In addition to making you feel tired or unable to concentrate, lack of sleep can harm your mental health. Do what you can to catch quality shut-eye and care for yourself in other ways.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and minimize added sugar. Low intakes of produce and high intakes of sweets are associated with an increased risk of depression, according to a study in Psychiatry Research.
If it’s safe and the weather is nice, pop your baby in the stroller, and take a walk. Regular physical activity and time in nature can boost your mood.
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