By Meg Meeker
A new study published this week in the journalPediatrics found that the mental health of expectant fathers is important to the happiness and well-being of their babies. We have long known that the emotional health of expectant mothers has a profound effect on babies, but now we know that a dad’s mood affects babies too.
The study looked at over 30,000 children from Norway and followed them from their mother’s pregnancy into their third year of life. When the mothers were 17 or 18 weeks pregnant, fathers were asked to fill out a form describing their stress levels and in particular, their levels of anxiety and depression.
After the children were born, the researchers followed the children’s behavior and emotional health. When the children were three years old, the researchers found that the paternal psychological stress was significantly associated with a child’s behavioral and emotional difficulties in addition to their social functioning. The children whose fathers were less stressed had fewer behavior problems than those whose fathers struggled with anxiety and depression. This finding is very important because it shows us once again how critically important the role of a father is on his child’s psychological health.
This is important for us mothers to know. Far too often we feel that we alone are responsible for our child’s happiness. During pregnancy we try to eat right, get enough sleep, stay away from alcohol, etc., but it’s nice to know that our child’s father affects child’s behavior in a huge way, too. Common sense tells us that a father’s mood affects many things about our kids, and it’s nice to see this spelled out in black and white.
So what should mothers do? For starters, it’s important to help fathers of our kids recognize how important they are to our kids—even from the time we are pregnant. In addition to taking care of ourselves, we need to encourage fathers to take care of themselves, too. Of course we can’t always alleviate their depression and anxiety, but we can most certainly iterate to them how important their mental health is to our children. Many times we unwittingly push dads away (especially when we are pregnant or breastfeeding) because we feel that our children need us and us alone. We need to remember to share the joys and the burdens and pull fathers into our children’s lives as soon as we are pregnant.
This information isn’t meant to give mothers one more thing to worry about. That’s not my point. Rather, we should take this research and use it to help us out. We need the fathers of our children to be happier. Sure, it makes our lives easier, but now we know that it makes our kids happier, too. The best way that I know to help the father of my children to be happier is to gently help him see when he is overwrought, anxious, or down. Rather than criticize him for being sullen or moody, I can encourage him to get help or find ways to de-stress.
Can I get rid of the stress in his life? Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. But what I can always do is tell him how important he is to those who love him. And, I can encourage him to take better care of his emotional health, not just for his sake or mine, but for the sake of his kids. I don’t know about your husband, but mine gets motivated to change pretty quickly when he knows it will help his kids.