Dads with ‘postnatal’ depression are more likely to fix on negatives and be more critical of themselves when talking to their new babies.

The study by Oxford University researchers, published in Psychological Medicine, is the first to look at the speech of new fathers with depression in their early interactions with their babies.

‘We found there were differences in the way depressed dads talked to their babies compared to fathers without depression,’ says Dr Vaheshta Sethna, lead author of the paper, ‘They tended to be more negative and be more focused on themselves. It is possible that babies will pick up on this negativity, that they will pick up on these cues even early in life. For example, the baby may have to respond differently to get attention.’

Around 4% or 5% of dads are thought to get depressed in the postnatal period -about half the rate for mums. And as with postnatal depression in mums, it has been shown that their children are at increased risk of developing emotional and behavioural problems.

One way that depression could affect the children is in changing the way dads interact with their babies. So the Oxford research team set out to compare the speech of depressed fathers to their three-month-old children with fathers who were not depressed.

38 fathers, half of whom were depressed, were asked to play with and speak to their three-month-olds for 3 minutes. The babies were sat in their infant seats, and the face-to-face interaction videoed. The dads’ words were transcribed and scored by researchers who didn’t know which fathers were depressed.

The researchers found that dads with depression were more negative about themselves and their infants in their speech in comparison to fathers who weren’t depressed. Their words also focused more on themselves and their experiences, and less on the infants. Examples included: ‘I’m not able to make you smile’; ‘Daddy’s not as good as Mummy’; ‘Are you tired?’ and ‘Oh-oh, Daddy hasn’t lasted very long, has he?’

Lead researcher Dr Paul Ramchandani says: ‘We want to try and work out the processes that lead to poorer outcomes in the children so we can work out where parents can be helped out.

‘More research has been done with mums with postnatal depression and there are a range of early interventions to help them in the way they talk and play with their babies. Depression in fathers is less well recognised and fewer fathers tend to come forward for help.’

Dr Ramchandani notes that: ‘This was a small study and we have not yet investigated whether differences in the way fathers talk to their babies leads to poorer emotional development and behavioural problems later. That’s the next step.’

He adds: ‘It’s important to remember that depression among parents doesn’t mean that the children are going to have problems. Most do not.’

The full paper can be read free of charge here:

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