Paternal Post-Partum Depression

Paternal Post-Partum Depression

Post-partum depression has long been identified as a serious condition after the birth of a child. There has been extensive research on maternal post-partum depression, which has revealed many predictors (Beck, 2001). However, there have not been a lot of studies conducted on what causes fathers’ post-partum depression. From the little data available, it seems that maternal post-partum depression is the strongest predictor of paternal post-partum depression (Paulson & Bazemore, 2010).

One factor that may be particularly important during the transition to parenthood is the state of the marital relationship (Dudley et al., 2001). The state of the marital relationship can be divided into two components – spousal support and relationship satisfaction.

Spousal Support

Spousal support can foster an environment of trust, love, and interdependence in a marital relationship (Cutrona, 1996). Conversely, the lack of spousal support or the failure to meet support expectations can have serious negative consequences on relationship functioning (Baxter, 1986). Negative support interactions, such as misunderstanding, disparaging, or disappointing a partner in need of support may have an even stronger effect on mental and physical health than positive support (Rook, 1984). Spousal support may be particularly at risk during times of change or adjustment. The transition to parenthood has been identified as one of the most significant adjustments in a couple’s relationship and as such can have serious psychological, physical and relationship consequences (Cowan & Cowan, 1988). When a couple has no children, psychological resources can be used to the maintenance and enjoyment of the relationship. However, with the addition of a child, the maintenance and enjoyment aspects of the relationship may become secondary to the needs of the child. Furthermore, when only one partner is experiencing a major stressor (such as a bar exam for a law student), the other partner usually provides higher levels of support and the affected partner is able to benefit from this additional support. However, when a child is born, both partners are affected by the added stress. When both partners are experiencing significant stress, their resources may be drained and that can result in diminishing support for each other. Moreover, research suggests that depressed people are less likely to provide support to others as a result of feeling sad and more self-focused (Wood, Saltzberg, & Goldsamt, 1990). If the mother experiences post-partum depression after giving birth, she may be able to provide less support to the father at a time when his need for support likely increases.

Relationship Satisfaction

Relationship satisfaction is linked to not only depression in individuals but also to paternal post-partum depression (Goodman, 2004).  When partners transition to being parents, they can experience small-to-moderate declines in their relationship satisfaction, with the most risky period being right after the birth of the child (Mitnick, Heyman, & Smith Slep, 2009).  Social support, however, can contribute to higher relationship satisfaction. There are five specific ways in which social support might influence a relationship positively. (1) Social support may help during periods of high stress when negative behaviors such as isolation and withdrawal increase. Social support may act as a buffer during high stress situations and may prevent behaviors that could be detrimental to the relationship. (2) Social support can prevent the spouse from developing depression, which could affect the relationship negatively. (3) By creating a warm and trusting environment, support can reduce the intensity of relationship conflicts. (4) Supportive interactions increase self-disclosure and intimacy in a relationship, both of which increase relationship satisfaction. (5) In an environment of trust and intimacy, a partner’s occasional negative actions can be seen as benign and therefore reduce conflict (Cutrona, 1996). In other words, high levels of relationship satisfaction may prevent fathers from experiencing post-partum mood problems because they feel confident in the presence of a loving and supportive partner to help with the demands of parenthood. However, dissatisfaction with the spousal relationship can make the transition to parenthood feel even more overwhelming (Cowan & Cowan, 1992).


Research suggests that the strongest predictor of fathers’ post-partum depression is mothers’ post-partum depression. The association between paternal and maternal post-partum depression seems to be tied to the quality of the spousal relationship. When a mother has post-partum depression, she may be able to give less support to the father and have more negative interactions with him, which leads to lower relationship satisfaction and greater post-partum depression for the father.

From a family systems point of view, when a new demand or major transition (such as the birth of a child) is encountered in a family’s life, the patterns of interaction between family members will adjust to the new situation (Cox & Paley, 2003). This adjustment is usually necessary and useful to adjust to the demands of the new situation but can be detrimental to certain elements of the family interaction. In the case of a child being born, adjusting to this new situation may influence the spousal relationship between parents negatively. The stress of the new child as well as the 

‘baby blues’ can create more negative interactions and lower relationship satisfaction. New fathers are likely to experience a variety or worries, fears and emotions as they start the deal with the reality of having a child (Biehle & Mickelson, 2011).  The transition to parenthood is a significant adjustment period for fathers and spousal support seems to be especially important at this time. However, as mothers experience more symptoms of post-partum depression, they may not be able to provide the support fathers need, which leads to decreased relationship satisfaction and higher paternal post-partum depression.

It is therefore important for new parents to find ways to maintain social support and a warm, loving environment in their relationship and help each other deal with the stresses and increased demands of the birth of a child.


Post-Partum Depression References

Don, B.P., & Mickelson, K.D. (2012). Paternal postpartum depression: The role of maternal postpartum depression, spousal support, and relationship satisfaction. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 1, 323-334.

Beck, C. T. (2001). Predictors of postpartum depression: An update. Nursing Research, 50, 275–285.

Paulson, J. F., & Bazemore, S. D. (2010). Prenatal and postpartum depression in fathers and its association with maternal depression: A meta-analysis. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 303, 1961–1969. 

Cutrona, C. E. (1996b). Social support in couples: Marriage as a resource in times of stress. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Dudley, M., Roy, K., Kelk, N., & Bernard, D. (2001). Psychological correlates of depression in fathers and mothers in the first postnatal year. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 19, 187–202.

Baxter, L. A. (1986). Gender Differences in the Heterosexual Relationship Rules Embedded in Break-Up Accounts. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 3, 289 –306. 

Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (1988). Changes in marriage during the transition to parenthood: Must we blame the baby? In G. Y. Michaels & W. A. Goldberg (Eds.), The transition to parenthood: Current theory and research (pp. 114–154). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Rook, K. S. (1984). The negative side of social interaction: Impact on psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 1097–1108. 

Wood, J. V., Saltzberg, J. A., & Goldsamt, L. A. (1990). Does affect induce self-focused attention? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 899–908. 

Goodman, J. H. (2004). Paternal postpartum depression, its relationship to maternal postpartum depression, and implications for family health. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 45, 26–35. 

Mitnick, D., Heyman, R., & Smith-Slep, A. (2009). Changes in relationship satisfaction across the transition to parenthood: A meta-analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 848–852. 

Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (1992). When partners become parents: The big life change for couples. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Cox, M. J., & Paley, B. (2003). Understanding families as systems. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 193–196. 

Biehle, S. N., & Mickelson, K., D. (2011). Worries in expectant parents: Its relation with perinatal wellbeing and relationship satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 18, 697–713

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