Fathers who are more involved in early infant parenting show reduced depressive symptoms

A new study sheds light on how a father’s involvement in early infant caretaking influences paternal mental health. The findings, published in Frontiers in Psychology, revealed that fathers with greater parenting self-efficacy and greater parental involvement showed fewer depressive symptoms during their child’s first year of life.

While postpartum depression has been more extensively studied among mothers, researchers have begun to show interest in studying depressive symptoms among new fathers. One circumstance that appears to play a role in paternal depression is the father’s involvement with infant caregiving.

Since previous research on the subject has been correlational, Olajide N. Bamishigbin Jr (@jidebam) and his research team were interested in examining longitudinal data to explore the link between early paternal involvement and later depressive symptoms. The authors specifically wanted to examine how a father’s time spent with his new baby, parenting self-efficacy, and contribution of material support are associated with a father’s depressive symptoms during the infant’s first year of life.

“I am a father of two young boys myself and research is oftentimes me-search. Generally speaking, I think fathers are important in the family. However, in our field, historically, they have been understudied, especially racial/ethnic minority fathers,” explained Bamishigbin, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach.

A study was conducted among a racially-diverse sample of 881 low-income fathers from the United States. The fathers were interviewed one month, 6 months, and one year following their child’s birth. At every time point, the father’s completed a measure of self-efficacy in parenting tasks and disclosed how often they provided material support for the new child (e.g. food, money, toys). They were also asked about the estimated amount of waking hours they spend with their baby and the amount of alone time they spend with their baby during a typical weekday and weekend day. Finally, they completed the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale.

The results revealed that fathers who reported greater parental self-efficacy, spent more time with the infant, and provided greater material support for the child one month after birth showed reduced depressive symptoms in the baby’s first year of life. These associations remained even after accounting for various demographic variables like age, ethnicity, education, and marital/cohabiting status.

As Bamishigbin and his colleagues point out, these findings suggest that a father’s early involvement in infant caretaking is important — even among fathers who are not married or living with the mother. The findings also suggest that the provider role is critical to a father’s identity, such that those who were less able to contribute money for the child may have experienced low self-worth, leading to depressive symptoms.

The researchers next examined whether a father’s involvement was linked to the likelihood of meeting criteria for clinical depression. After accounting for all control variables, only self-efficacy was linked to a reduced likelihood of clinical depression during the baby’s first year. The researchers speculate that self-efficacy is likely important because fathers who feel better about their parenting skills likely feel more satisfied as parents, and accordingly experience fewer depressive symptoms.

“In general, I think there are two big takeaways. First, involvement with your child is not only better for the child, but it’s also better for the dad. So, dads, get involved with your kids early and often!” Bamishigbin told PsyPost. “Second, I think it is important for everyone to understand that paternal depression is a serious issue that requires attention. It affects fathers thereby impacting the entire family. So, it’s important that we take it seriously.”

The researchers also say that their findings highlight the importance of fostering self-efficacy among fathers, especially those who are becoming parents for the first time. “Different online intervention programs have been successful in increasing parenting self-efficacy in fathers,” the researchers wrote in their study. “Adapting these programs and making them culturally sensitive and accessible to fathers from diverse racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds may be useful in reducing paternal depressive symptoms.”

Bamishigbin and his team also pointed to the implications for public policy, suggesting that one way to alleviate paternal depression might be with paid paternal leave. This would allow fathers to spend more time with their new child without risking their livelihoods.

The authors acknowledged that the relationship between parental self-efficacy and depression remains unclear. While depression might lead to reduced confidence in parenting, lower parenting confidence might also lead to depression.

“I want to be clear that our study does not say that more involvement causes lower depression. Although we used longitudinal data, since this is not a true experiment, we cannot infer causality,” Bamishigbin explained.

“It is perfectly plausible (and there is research to suggest) that depression also leads to lower involvement. Regardless, it’s still important to understand the factors associated with paternal depression. In the future, research should examine the time periods when fathers are most likely to be depressed so that interventions can be developed, and the physical health effects of paternal depression in fathers.”

The researchers propose that future studies test the effectiveness of interventions that focus on paid paternal leave and fostering self-efficacy.

“Fathers are important members of the family unit and their physical and mental health deserves as much attention as the health status of mothers,” Bamishigbin said.

The study, “Father Involvement in Infant Parenting in an Ethnically Diverse Community Sample: Predicting Paternal Depressive Symptoms”, was authored by Olajide N. Bamishigbin Jr, Dawn K. Wilson, Demetrius A. Abshire, Cilia Mejia-Lancheros, and Christine Dunkel Schetter.