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Pregnant women are less likely to develop postnatal depression if their husbands or partners have good mates, or a strong support network, a new Queensland study has found.
The Queensland Family Cohort study, led by Mater Researcher Professor Vicki Clifton and the University of the Sunshine Coast Lecturer Dr Barnaby Dixson, shows low social support was the strongest factor influencing if dads reported depression, stress, and anxiety during their partner’s pregnancy.
The researchers say the effects of a dad’s poor mental health then flowed onto the mother.
Dads who slept poorly during their partner’s pregnancy also had high levels of depression, stress, and anxiety.
Professor Clifton said the findings indicate a strong need for both parents to be well supported during pregnancy.
“Mothers whose partners reported lower social support during the pregnancy tended to then also have lower postnatal social support and probably as a consequence had higher postnatal depression,” said Professor Clifton, who is also Director of the Queensland Family Cohort study.
“These findings show it takes a village to care for a family with a newborn, and maternity service providers really need to look after both parents to ensure families have the best outcomes after the birth of a child.”
The study analysed data from 180 couples participating in the Queensland Family Cohort longitudinal study who gave birth at the Mater Mothers’ Hospital in Brisbane.
Both parents completed surveys measuring mental health, relationship quality, social support, and sleep quality at 24 weeks of pregnancy, and mothers completed the same survey again six weeks postpartum.
Dr Dixson said despite the growing recognition of paternal depression during pregnancy, there were still large gaps in understanding the risk factors associated with declines in mental health.
“Screening both partners during pregnancy to identify their levels of support and their mental health status could help manage the risk of a new family experiencing anxiety, depression or damaging stress later,” Dr Dixson said.
“Highlighting these risk factors among parents is crucial for early identification and prevention. If we include screening for dads, it will not only benefit them, but also improve their relationships with mothers and the developmental trajectories of their children.
“Other important findings include that poor sleep quality and higher physical pain during pregnancy, were the strongest predictors of worse mental health following childbirth.
“This is another area that maternity service providers need to watch closely to mitigate mental health issues later on.”
Brisbane dad of two, Luke Devitt 43, said his extended family and friends played a big role in helping him readjust to life with a young family.
“My Dad is my best mate, my sister is heavily involved in our lives, and all my old school and sport friends, along with our circle from playgroup provide us with balance in our lives,” Mr Devitt said.
“Talking to mates helps you not sweat the small stuff, and lets you reset and normalise things when you get fatigued and overwhelmed.
“There is already a lot of evidence out there that links the importance of social connectedness for elderly people. It’s great too now have data to support the important of strong support-networks for the mental health of sleep-deprived new parents!”
The Queensland Family Cohort study is a landmark project that aims to follow 10,000 Queensland families over three decades to understand the influences on health.
Founded at Mater Mothers’ Hospital, the researchers will examine data from mothers, fathers and babies, with the hope their research will lead to the discovery of biomarkers and interventions that can improve the future health of Queenslanders.
Pregnant women and families interested in joining the Queensland Family Cohort Study can find out more information or join here: https://www.qldfamilycohort.org/qld-wide-study
The study findings are published in the Journal of Women’s Mental Health, DOI:10.1007/s00737-022-01257-1.
The research was funded by Mater Foundation and was completed while Dr Dixson was working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Queensland.
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