What comes to mind when you think about pregnancy, prenatal care, birth, and newborns? Most of these thoughts are centered on mom and baby: a blur of frequent checkups, peeing in a cup, peeing a lot in general, nausea, heartburn, crazy hormones, sleepless nights, I'm so tired, and wow, why are diapers so expensive?
Rightfully so, as women are the actual vessels housing the little energy-sucking bundles of ever-loving joy and sacrificing body, brain, boobs, and bubbly drinks to grow them and care for them. But where is dad in all this?
His role goes way beyond being just a sperm donor and side spectator throughout the process. Although we may recognize the importance of a father's presence in raising kids, we often isolate the pregnancy and newborn time period as mom's job. But science has something to say about just how much influence dad has, whether he wants to or not, from the very beginning.
It's no secret: Today's women are waiting longer to start families, due to factors like personal and career goals and advancements in reproductive medicine. So it would make sense that dads are getting older, too. Indeed, the typical man with a newborn is 3.5 years older than his counterpart four decades ago. The rate of new dads over 40 in particular has more than doubled.
Along with increasing age comes unexpected impacts on the family. It can take longer to get pregnant, and the risk of miscarriage is higher. There is also a higher chance of birth defects, genetic disorders, and psychological conditions in offspring. But there are big benefits, too, like financial stability and emotional preparedness, plus the possibility of producing smarter kids and the extended effect of increased lifespan for future generations.
We’ve also focused responsibility for smoking and drinking during pregnancy solely on the woman, but a man's lifestyle habits have a surprising impact as well. A study in International Journal of Epidemiology showed that children with a father who smoked earlier in life (but had quit prior to conception) had a more than three times higher chance of early-onset asthma than children whose father had never smoked.
A review by National Drug Research Institute found that men who drank 10 or more alcoholic drinks per week during preconception carried a two to five times increased risk of miscarriage. Additionally, paternal alcohol consumption was associated with a greater risk of negative outcomes for infants, including ventricle malformation, low birth weight, low gestational age, and even acute lymphoblastic leukaemia at high-level use.
Women may be the ones doing all the “hard work” but aren't the only ones who suffer through a pregnancy. Ever heard of sympathy pregnancy symptoms? Yeah, this is a real thing. It's called couvade syndrome, defined as a phenomenon in which a male experiences symptoms of pregnancy during the time his partner or another woman he is particularly close to is pregnant.
They may have weight gain, nausea, mood swings, fatigue, sleep loss, and other telltale symptoms. Many men also have real hormonal changes during this time with a drop in testosterone and estradiol levels, as evidenced by a study published in American Journal of Human Biology. So women aren't the only hormonal hippos in the house! (Not sure if this is good or bad?)
Add to that all the pressure and stress associated with a new baby, and you have a recipe for a male version of prenatal depression. A study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology reported that new depression in fathers was linked to a 38 percent increased risk of very preterm birth. That's quite a significant number and indicates that a father’s health is important because it has spillover effects on the rest of the family.
The underlying changes dads go through don't end when the baby is born. The postpartum period, although supposedly a joyful new chapter in life, brings new challenges and stressors for both parents. Postpartum depression is a hot topic these days, with an estimated one in seven new moms affected. Increased awareness is a good thing, as more moms are getting the help they need.
But most don't realize dads can feel the baby blues, too. Up to 10 percent of new fathers experience symptoms of depression, according to researchers at the University of Southern California. An interesting study published in Hormones and Behavior revealed a link between a drop in testosterone and increased risk of paternal depression. On the other hand, men with high testosterone weren’t affected by depressive symptoms, but there was still an important family implication: Their mama partners were more likely to be depressed and reported more aggressive behavior coming from their man.
Clearly, dad’s hormones and emotional state affect mom and the family’s overall well-being. This is all very eye-opening in light of our current social views of pregnancy and medical care protocols focusing solely on mother and baby. "We often think of motherhood as biologically driven because many mothers have biological connections to their babies through breastfeeding and pregnancy," said Darby Saxbe, lead researcher. "We don't usually think of fatherhood in the same biological terms.”
It takes a village!
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