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New Parents at Risk for Postpartum Depression

Study Shows Moms and Dads at Greatest Risk During First Year of Baby's Life

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Sept 7, 2010 -- Both moms and dads are at an increased risk for depression during the first year of their infant's life, finds a new study of parents in the U.K.

Close to 40% of new moms and 21% of new dads in the U.K experienced a bout of depression during their child's first 12 years of life, but this risk was most pronounced during the first year after birth, according to research published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

"These high rates of depression in the postpartum period are not surprising owing to the potential stress associated with the birth of a baby, e.g., poor parental sleep, the demands made on parents and the change in their responsibilities, and the pressure this could place on the couple's relationship," write researchers who were led by Shreya Davé, PhD, of the Medical Research Council, London.

In the new study, parents at greatest risk for depression included those who were younger when their children were born as well as those who were more financially strapped, and those with a past history of depression.

Researchers examined health records from more than 350 doctors' practices in the U.K. from 1993 to 2007. From these records, they identified 86,957 families consisting of a mother, father, and child. Overall, 19,286 mothers had a total of 25,176 bouts of depression and 8,012 fathers experienced 9,683 episodes of depression between their children's birth and age 12. Incidences of depression were greater for mothers than fathers. The highest rates were observed in the first year after the birth of a child, the study showed.

Dads Get Postpartum Depression, Too

"While the maternal depression and child outcome literature is well established, there are fewer studies on paternal depression," the researchers write.

Going forward, there is a need for enhanced screening for depression among new dads as well as new moms, they stress.

"Depression occurs disproportionately among new parents, and this study also hammers home the point that it affects both mothers and fathers," says James F. Paulson, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk. Paulson recently reported that slightly more than 10% of new dads also become depressed before or after their baby's birth -- a rate that is two times as high as that seen in adult males.

There are many potential reasons for the increased risk of depression after having a child, he says.

For starters, "there are all of the changes that all new parents go through including redefining who you are as a person, redefining your relationship with your partner, sleep deprivation, and financial stress," he says. "All of these things can potentially affect mothers and fathers in significant ways."

The question now becomes what can be done about maternal and paternal depression.

"New or expecting parents should become aware of depression as a risk," he says.

It affects the whole family -- including the children.

Recognize and Treat Postpartum Depression

"Depression in moms and dads has long-term negative effects on childhood development and mental health," he says.

But it doesn't have to play out this way."If it is recognized, depression is entirely treatable in both men and women," Paulson says.

"There is no hard line between problems with mood and becoming depressed, it's a creeping situation," he says.

"We look for significant depressed mood such as feeling in the dumps or particularly irritable for the past week or two," Paulson says. "It is not just low mood, but also a loss of interest in things that were previously very pleasurable."

Another factor is how much any of these symptoms get in the way of day-to-day life, he says. "If you have difficulty getting out of bed and engaging with your child and the world, that is a more alarming sign."

Ian Cook, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior of the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees.

"Screening for depression should apply to new dads as well as new moms," he tells WebMD. Doctors need to ask new parents whether they have felt sad, depressed, or blue in the past few weeks, or if they have lost interest in things that usually bring pleasure."

"If the answer is yes to any of these questions, a more extensive follow-up is needed," he says. "There is clearly evidence that we should ask these question of new dads and get them treated so they can be the best possible parents."

Leon Hoffman, MD, co-director of the Pacella Parent Child Center of The New York Psychoanalytic Society, adds that such treatment should focus on providing more social support for the whole family.

"What is most important is to develop a system of social supports for new mothers and fathers who do not have an adequate support system in place," he says. "That is a very effective intervention, yet too often very difficult to implement."

SOURCES: James F. Paulson, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk.

Davé, S. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 2010.

Leon Hoffman, MD, co-director, Pacella Parent Child Center, The New York Psychoanalytic Society.

Ian Cook, MD, professor of psychiatry, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, University of California, Los Angeles.

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