Good father-child tie can lessen effects of postnatal depression

15% to 18% of women in Western societies and up to 30% in developing countries suffer from maternal depression.

May 11, 2017 15:35
2 minute read.

NURSES TAKE CARE of newborn infants at a nursery in Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The harmful effects of postpartum depression can be mitigated by a positive father-child relationship, according to research at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan that has just been published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

The study by Prof. Ruth Feldman and colleagues in BIU’s psychology department and the Leslie and Susan Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center is reportedly the first to describe the family process by using direct observations of mothering, fathering and family patterns in homes where mothers suffer clinical depression during the child’s first years, and the first to examine whether fathering can moderate the negative effects of maternal depression on family-level functioning.

Since 15% to 18% of women in Western societies and up to 30% in developing countries suffer from maternal depression, it is of clinical and public health concern to understand the effects of maternal depression on children’s development, the researchers wrote.

Maternal depression hurts children’s emotional and cognitive development and family life. Studies have shown that a home in which the mother suffers from depression suffers from lower cohesion, warmth and expressiveness and more conflict, rigidity and “affectionless control.”

They conducted a longitudinal study of a carefully selected sample of married or cohabiting chronically depressed women who were repeatedly assessed for maternal depression across the first year after childbirth and when the child reached age six. The families were visited at home when the child reached preschool age in order to observe and videotape mother-child, father-child, and both parent-child interactions.

During the first years of life, sensitivity marks the most critical component of the parental style that affects the child’s emotional and social development, they wrote. Sensitive parents are attuned to their child’s needs and attend to them in a responsive and nonintrusive manner.

Parents who act intrusively tend to take over tasks that children are, or could be, performing independently, imposing their own agenda without regard for the child.

In Feldman’s study, depressed mothers showed low sensitivity and high intrusiveness, and children displayed lower social engagement during interactions with them. Partners of depressed mothers also showed low sensitivity, high intrusiveness, and provided little opportunities for child social engagement, so that the family unit was less cohesive, harmonious, warm, and collaborative.

However, when fathers were sensitive, nonintrusive, and engaged children socially, maternal depression no longer predicted low family cohesion.

“When fathers rise to the challenge of co-parenting with a chronically depressed mother, become invested in the father-child relationship despite little modeling from their wives, and form a sensitive, nonintrusive and reciprocal relationship with the child that fosters his/her social involvement and participation, fathering can buffer the spillover from maternal depression to the family atmosphere,” said Feldman.

Because rates of maternal depression appear to increase each decade, and paternal involvement in childcare is constantly increasing in industrial societies, it is critical to address the fathers’ potential contribution to family welfare by providing interventions for the development of a sensitive parenting style and other compensatory mechanisms so as to enhance their role as buffers of the negative effects of maternal depression, Feldman concluded.

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