A new study that followed the journey of 100 fathers of babies born before 30 weeks’ gestation found that one in five experienced high depressive symptoms and approximately half suffered moderate anxiety symptoms that persisted throughout the first year of their baby’s life.
The collaborative study led by Grace McMahon from the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health at Monash University asked fathers about their symptoms of depression and anxiety shortly after the baby’s birth, around the baby’s expected due date, and then again at three, six and 12 months after the baby’s expected due date. At 12 months, fathers and their babies were videotaped during a play session to look at a range of parenting behaviours.
Ms McMahon said that fathers’ experiences following very premature birth are rarely studied but are crucial to understand given the potential stress associated with concerns about their baby’s health and managing family and work activities, as well as the importance of fathers for the babies’ wellbeing and development.
“The high rates of fathers reporting persistent mental health difficulties in this study is concerning and highlights the need to include fathers in ongoing mental health screening and support following very premature birth,” says Ms McMahon.
The study also found the experience of more severe mental health symptoms had little effect on fathers’ parenting behaviours with their baby at 12 months.
“While our finding of minimal impact of depression and anxiety symptoms on fathers’ early parenting behaviours is encouraging news for fathers suffering with mental health difficulties, we do believe that these relationships are complex and further research is needed to better understand the experiences of fathers following very premature birth,” says Ms McMahon.
This study was conducted by researchers in the Centre for Research Excellence in Newborn Medicine, which includes collaborators from the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health at Monash University, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, La Trobe University, University of Melbourne, Royal Women’s Hospital, and Royal Children’s Hospital.
This research was funded by the National Health & Medical Research Council.