Fathers of 9-month-olds are about twice as likely as other men their age to show symptoms of major depression, which also can hurt their children: Depressed fathers read less to their kids, and the children know slightly fewer words by age 2, a study suggested Tuesday.

Depression in mothers is known to hamper children’s academic performance and mental health. But the study on fathers, presented at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in Washington, D.C., is among the first to suggest that fathers’ depression in early childhood affects children.

In the study, 10 percent of the dads with 9-month-olds had symptoms that met the criteria for clinical depression, says James Paulson, study leader and a psychologist at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. That compares with 5 percent for U.S. men the same age, he says.

“Anybody who’s had a baby knows it can be intensely stressful and intensely pleasurable at the same time,” Paulson says. “The man may feel increased financial demands, fatigue from a loss of sleep, a change in his relationship with the woman - any of these could contribute to depression.”

If the ecstasy side of new parenthood doesn’t also kick in, a dad may interact less with his baby, Paulson says. Depressed fathers read less to their children at ages 1 and 2 than did fathers who weren’t depressed.

By age 2, babies of depressed fathers had somewhat smaller vocabularies, according to the study of about 4,500 new fathers. The difference was significant even accounting for parents’ education and income. “We don’t know how this will play out over time,” Paulson says.

Another new British study links a father’s depression when a child is 2 months old to psychiatric disorders at age 7. For example, children of depressed fathers were nearly twice as likely to be defiant, disobedient and hostile, the University of Oxford psychiatrists found.

With fathers taking on more child care, their parenting can have a big influence, says psychiatrist Nada Stotland of Rush Medical College in Chicago. “There aren’t any secrets from babies. They absorb the feelings around them.”

From age 3 on, children tend to blame themselves if adults in the family are depressed, she says.

The findings underscore the need for fathers to seek professional help if they’re having a lot of trouble adjusting to parenthood, Paulson says.

Trending Video

Recommended for you