From losing sleep to weight gain, to newfound responsibilities and financial strain, the first introduction to parenthood can impact physical and mental health in ways that are unthinkable before having kids. That’s why for over 35 years, experts have been researching mothers’ overall health and wellbeing post-childbirth. The same has never been true of fathers. Even though a dad’s role in child-rearing is critically important to the family, researchers have spent little time trying to understand how dads fare after the birth of a child.
But a study is finally shedding light on the plight of our nation’s fathers. And the picture shows a public health emergency amongst dads who are paying little attention to their own health once a baby enters their life. Amongst 266 new Georgia-based fathers who completed a pilot survey two to six months after the birth of their child, 70 percent were either overweight or had obesity. Nineteen percent were smokers, and 13 percent had engaged in binge drinking in the past month, according to the study, published today in the journal PLOS One.
The poor nature of the new dads’ overall health was already putting their longevity and ability to be there for their children at risk, says study author Craig Garfield, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Healthy men are more likely to have healthy children, participate in raising them, and support mothers in parenting.
For one reason or another, most of the fathers weren’t trying to turn their health around. Slightly less than half of the men did not have a primary care physician. About half of the dads hadn’t made a personal healthcare visit for themselves during their partner’s pregnancy or since their baby was born. Thirty percent didn’t have health insurance.
“We’re missing the boat here with preventative care,” Garfield says. “Fathers need to know that preventative health really can lead to healthier families. These dads are going to be modeling healthy behavior for the next generation, so their choices matter.”
And though there’s been a movement in recent years to screen new moms for postnatal depression, there’s been little work around screening fathers — even though we know they suffer from it and that their health outcomes have a huge impact on their children. The new study found that 10 percent of fathers had depression compared to 15 percent of new moms, Garfield says.
Garfield, who was a stay-at-home dad in the year after completing his residency, has spent his career emphasizing the importance of paternal health. He hopes this pilot study is just the beginning. His team is currently working on similar projects in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Michigan. He hopes more states will participate in the future to help understand the public health emergency new dads are facing.
The bottom line is that fathers are often overlooked by the healthcare system despite the fact that many are just as involved in raising their children as mothers. The hope is that this is the first step in acknowledging how important a dad’s wellbeing is to his family. “It’s a missed opportunity…that we don’t embrace fathers more readily,” Garfield says.
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