More than 350,000 births among depressed parents in Sweden between 2007 and 2012 were investigated for incidences of either very preterm birth (between 22 and 31 weeks) or moderately preterm birth (32-36 weeks). And while both new and recurrently depressed mothers were associated with an increased risk of a moderately preterm birth, new depression in the fathers was associated with a 38 percent increased risk of very preterm birth, while recurrent depression in the dads was not associated with preterm birth at all.
"Depression of a partner can be considered to be a substantial source of stress for an expectant mother, and this may result in the increased risk of very preterm birth seen in our study," says Professor Anders Hjern, from the Centre for Health Equity Studies in Stockholm. "Paternal depression is also known to affect sperm quality, have epigenetic effects on the DNA of the baby, and can also affect placenta function. However, this risk seems to be reduced for recurrent paternal depression, indicating that perhaps treatment reduces the risk of preterm birth."
Hjern says the results suggest both maternal and paternal depression should be considered in preterm birth prevention strategies, and that both parents should be screened for mental health problems. "Since men are less likely to seek professional help for any mental health problems," he explains, "a proactive approach towards targeting the wellbeing of expectant fathers may be beneficial."
According to Dr. Patrick O'Brien, an obstetrician and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, this research is interesting as it finds that paternal mental health can also have an effect on the health of the baby, and he encourages anyone—particularly those planning a family or who are pregnant and are experiencing a change in mood, irritability, or anxiety—to seek advice. "No one should suffer in silence," he says. "There is help and support available."