For the first time psychologists are taking a more indepth look at how an expectant father’s mental state can influence behavioral and emotional development in toddlers, above and beyond that of mothers during pregnancy.
According to lead study author Anne Lise Kvalevaag, “the results point to the fact that the fathers’ mental health represents a major risk factor for child development.”
Kvalevaag, doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway, based her conclusions after examining data from questionaires filled out by fathers of more than 31,000 Norwegian children halfway through their wives’ pregnancies regarding their own personal feelings of anxiety and depression.
The mothers also provided information about their own mental health and about their children’s social, emotional and behavioral development at age 3.
Results showed that 3% of the fathers had high levels of psychological distress, and their children had higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems (even after the researchers took into account other possible contributing factors, such as the dad's age, education, and marital status, and the mother's mental health).
“What we found was evidence that pointed to the fact that children whose dads were depressed during the pregnancy were more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems at age 3,” stated Kvalevaag in her report published yesterday in the online journal Pediatrics.*
Suggested reasons for this included the fact that the expectant fathers’ behavior may have had a negative impact on the pregnant mothers’ mental health, who, in turn, passed their distress on to their unborn infants, as well as the fact that the toddlers may have inherited a genetic susceptibility for depression from their dads.
In addition, Dr. Elizabeth Harvey, a psychologist at the university of Massachusetts in Amherst surmised that "Fathers who have mental health difficulties during the prenatal period are likely to continue to have those difficulties during the child's infancy.”
*It should be noted that although Kvalevaag and her team did not delve into any specific diagnoses in the children involved in the study, they did gather data on whether the children got into fights, were generally anxious, or if they experienced continuous mood shifts.