Depressed dads pass on negativity to their babies

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Fathers with postnatal depression are more likely to pass problems onto their children as they tend to be more negative and focused on themselves, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Oxford set out to compare the way depressed fathers interacted with their three-month-old children to fathers not suffering from the condition.

They observed fathers playing and speaking to their children for three minutes and filmed their face-to-face interactions.

Their findings revealed that the fathers with depression were more negative about themselves and their children in their speech in comparison to fathers who were not depressed.

Fathers with depression, for example, said, ‘I’m not able to make you smile’, ‘Daddy’s not as good as mummy’ and ‘Can’t think of anything to do all of a sudden’.

The proportion of negative comments rose from an average 11 per cent among fathers without depression to 19 per cent in fathers with depression. The number of comments that focused on the baby dropped from 72 per cent for fathers without the condition to 60 per cent for fathers with postnatal depression. In contrast, 24 per cent of the comments made by depressed fathers focused on themselves compared to 14 per cent of comments from fathers without depression.

Dr Vaheshta Sethna, one of the authors of the study, said, ‘We found there were differences in the way depressed dads talked to their babies compared to fathers without depression. 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.’

Lead resercher Dr Paul Ramchandani added, ‘Depression in fathers is less well recognised and fewer fathers tend to come forward for help.

‘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.’

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

The research, Depressed fathers’ speech to their 3-month-old infants: a study of cognitive and mentalizing features in paternal speech, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust, is published in the journal ‘Psychological Medicine’.

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