New research shows that fathers who spend more time parenting during the infant stage set themselves up for better mental health later. Here’s how experts say that affects the entire family unit.

By Anna Halkidis
September 25, 2020
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newborn fist resting on fathers hand

As more awareness is being brought on the need for parental leave, here’s another reason why dads should get more time with their infants: it can have positive benefits on their own mental health.

Fathers who are more involved in parenting during the infant stage have a lower risk of having paternal depressive symptoms in that often difficult first year of parenthood, according to a new study published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

“This is very important because, it suggests that, if fathers are involved with their infants early and often, their mental health, and the health of the entire family unit, may fare better,” explains Olajide N. Bamishigbin Jr., Ph.D., author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at California State University in a statement.

The study looked at 881 low-income dads of various races and ethnicities living in different parts of the United States. A month after the birth of their children, these dads were interviewed at home on three parenting indicators: the time spent with their infant, parenting self-efficacy (aka one’s confidence in caring for their young), and ability to provide material support (think baby clothes, medicine, child care items like diapers, and food). After looking at paternal depressive symptoms at one, six, and 12 months after birth with the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale, researchers found all three indicators led to lower rates of depressive symptoms the next year.

Some reasons for this? Dr. Bamishigbin say dads who are more involved during infancy “may feel more competent as parents and be more satisfied in their role as parents over time, and this could contribute to lower depressive symptoms.”

Experts agree this attention on dads is much needed. "For too long, we’ve looked at the mother and her symptoms in isolation during a time when her village is needed most after the birth of a baby. Clearly, it’s not only the mother who benefits from this family support and bonding time with the baby but also the father, a pivotal component of that village," says Anna K. Costakis, M.D., psychiatrist and director of adult ambulatory psychiatry at Northwell Zucker Hillside Hospital.

It's true: Father involvement at the start of a child’s life can benefit the family unit in numerous ways. Previous research has shown it can lower maternal depressive symptoms, lower rates of infant mortality, lead to more secure father-child attachment, and higher child IQ. That's why focusing on the mental health of dads is important, especially as 8 to 10 percent experience depression in early fatherhood, which can negatively affect the family unit. “Fathers often exert a strong influence on family life and functioning, and paternal depressive symptoms have been associated with adverse child and maternal mental health outcomes such as depression and psychiatric disorders,” the study notes.

The new study is just more evidence supporting the need for paternal leave policies in all workplaces.

“This is why we suggest that paid paternal leave policies which can allow fathers the opportunity to be more involved with their kids and gain confidence as a parent early on in their lives, without having to worry about their economic security, and may help allow fathers more opportunities to be involved with their kids and be part of shaping healthier and thriving future generations,” says Dr. Bamishigbin. “In turn, this may improve the well-being of the entire family.”