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5 Facts About Fatherhood

What the Latest Research Means for the New Dad in Your Life

Fatherhood has always represented a significant change in a man’s life, but research has begun to show its developmental effects on a man’s health as well. Craig Garfield, MD, associate professor in Pediatrics and Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, has led multiple studies on health changes in new fathers. With a team of scientists, he’s studied data from more than 10,000 participants in a National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that followed men over nearly 20 years from adolescence to young adulthood.

During that time, 33 percent of the nationally representative sample became fathers between the ages of 24 and 32. In two different studies, Dr. Garfield examined weight and BMI measures as well as scores for depression.

Two breakthrough studies from Dr. Garfield and his Northwestern Medicine team then identified commonalities in the health effects among fathers.

Here’s what it means for new dads:

1. The bad news: Paternal weight gain is practically universal.

When moms are shedding baby weight, dads gain their own. The study measured the BMI of 10,253 men at four different times in their lives — early adolescence, late adolescence, mid-20s and early 30s. The data were then divided into non-fathers, resident fathers and non-resident fathers, and controlled for factors including age, race, marriage, education and income.

While the men who did not become fathers during this period lost on average 1.4 pounds, the average man who lived with his child gained 4.4 pounds after becoming a first-time dad. The new father who did not live with his child gained 3.3 pounds. Long-term, weight gain puts these men at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

2. The good news: Weight gain could be due to manageable causes.

Dr. Garfield is a practicing pediatrician, and based on what he sees with his patients’ parents, he believes parental weight gain could be associated with two very manageable causes: lifestyle change and eating habits.

Fathers face new responsibilities and priorities. It may take some time for their schedules to adjust and return to a healthy balance. Children also tend to change the pantry landscape – more cookies, ice cream and other snack food. And of course, dads have been known to clean up their kids’ leftovers, too.

But awareness goes a long way. While most new fathers assume their youthfulness can compensate for fewer trips to the gym, this new research can remind young dads to stay active in their new lives.

3. Postnatal depression affects men too.

Like postpartum mood disorders in new mothers, paternal depression can be serious for both fathers and their children. In the Northwestern Medicine study of paternal depression, scientists determined that symptoms of depression in young men who lived with their children increased by 68 percent during the first five years of their children’s lives.

The data Dr. Garfield studied scored the young men’s depression over time using a subset of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression scale. The CESD-R scale measures symptoms for a depressive episode as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV).

Unlike weight gain, living in the same home as the child did make a difference. Fathers who did not live with their children did not experience such a statistically significant rise in depression.

4. Don’t wait to address depression — the first five years matter.

Parental depression can have serious consequences on a child’s life. This is particularly powerful during their first five years, when parent-infant attachments are formed. When a parent’s depression is left unaddressed, children may be at risk for behavioral problems. A child’s language and reading skills can be adversely affected when his or her parent is depressed. This can lead to infrequent interaction during a child’s most important developmental years. Previous research shows that depressed fathers are also more likely to use corporal punishment or neglect their children. In addition, children of depressed dads may go on to suffer depression themselves, according to Dr. Garfield, snowballing the situation.

5. Bring dads on visits to the pediatrician.

New dads are adjusting to a new lifestyle, and they are trying to balance healthy activity and personal time with bonding time with their children and support for their partner. Combine these demands with a job or whatever routine remains from their pre-baby life, and there’s not a lot of time for dads to think about their health.

Moreover, many young men do not have a personal physician. One of Dr. Garfield’s primary goals with this research is to raise awareness of the risks and changes new fathers face, and to provide support and prevention resources. The medical field, he believes, can use this research to think of new ways to help first-time dads who do not see a doctor for themselves. To that end, the Northwestern Medicine physician sees a unique opportunity for pediatricians like himself to help these young men.

When fathers take their children in for check-ups or other visits to the pediatrician, that trip can double as a check-up for dad, too. Pediatricians can monitor for signs of paternal depression or weight gain, and, when appropriate, counsel young men on the importance of nutrition and mental health. Dads may not have their own doctors but may be willing to bring their child to the doctor and listen to the doctor’s advice.

Fatherhood can bring overwhelming joy, but, like motherhood, it involves a major life change that presents new challenges. Difficulty with adjustment is normal, but awareness, education and willingness to accept can help.

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