Promoting Fathers’ Mental Health During Children's Early Childhood
Right from the beginning, fathers play a big role in their children’s health and development. Studies show that father involvement during the perinatal period and the first year of life leads to children who are more ready for school, have an advanced vocabulary and enhanced social skills, and are better able to regulate their emotions.
Not only that, but father involvement also positively impacts fathers and mothers: it increases both parents’ confidence, results in both being more responsive to the baby, and it decreases mothers and fathers’ potential for mental health issues.
Father involvement, then, has significant benefits for everyone involved. But too often, social expectations about masculinity and structural barriers make it difficult for fathers to get involved, especially during the early years of life.
“There are so many things that shape each person’s idea of masculinity, from social norms to cultural influences,” says NICHQ Senior Project Director, Kenn Harris. “And sometimes it can be difficult to reconcile all these expectations. This is especially true for fathers who face additional structural barriers—such as employment and economic challenges or living in different housing than their child—which disrupt their ability to connect with their children during the early years of life.”
Trying to navigate these barriers can generate internal stress, explains psychologist and national fathers’ mental health expert Daniel Singley, PhD, ABPP. This stress can then manifest in mental health issues and make it all the more difficult for dads to engage in nurturing, interactive relationships with their children.
“All of this makes one thing clear: we need to do more to support fathers’ mental health,” says Harris, who leads NICHQ’s work on the Supporting Healthy Start Performance Project (SHSPP). “We know that fathers’ health is directly tied to the health of women and children. That’s why Healthy Start, a national maternal and child health initiative, considers fatherhood a high priority opportunity for improving maternal and infant health outcomes.”
Recently, Singley joined a conversation with the Healthy Start team to share ways to better support fathers’ mental health, especially during their children’s earliest stages of life. Below, we’ve compiled four essential strategies that health care providers, public health professionals, and community advocates can use in their own work.
1. Recognize the prevalence of mental health concerns for fathers
“These are big numbers from a public health perspective,” says Singley. “And men are far less likely to seek help, particularly mental health help, in the perinatal period.”
A mother experiencing postpartum depression is the highest indicator that the father is depressed too. Always screen the father if the mother is depressed.
Recognizing when a father’s mental health is suffering can be difficult. Like women, men may mask their symptoms, which in men may manifest as anger, irritability, isolation from those they love, and increased substance use. Depression can also cause physical symptoms, like headaches, muscle complaints, and gastrointestinal problems. Recognizing these symptoms and providing a depression screening during a well child visit is a critical opportunity for helping fathers connect with the supports they need.
Find more opportunities to support maternal and paternal depression in these fact sheets.
2. Connect fathers with a support network
As health professionals, it’s important to let fathers know that they need and deserve support. “This is especially true for new dads… or dads struggling with mental health issues, relationship issues, or working multiple jobs,” says Singley. “And they need support beyond what one person can do.”
Too often, fathers end up leaning on their partner for all their social and intimacy needs, which ultimately backfires when their partner, understandably, can’t meet all those needs. Because of this, it’s important to proactively connect dads with a fuller network of support. Singley has found that fathers are often more comfortable with informal supports, so suggests encouraging dads to engage with online groups; talk to clergy or other community leaders; and connect with other friends who are fathers, who also share their lived experience and understand what they’re going through.
Sometimes, fathers may feel uncomfortable talking to health professionals about their mental health, adds Singley. He suggests first talking to fathers about parent education—what it means to be a good parent—and then transitioning to asking them about their social supports and concerns.
3. Build self-efficacy
Health professionals can play an important role in helping dads feel more confident about fatherhood. Building fathers’ self-efficacy will ultimately support both the dad’s mental health and his child’s development.
One way to build confidence is to recommend that fathers do as much as possible with their baby: soothe them to sleep, burp them, read them stories, bathe them, take them on errands… the more activities fathers do with their newborn, the more comfortable they will feel.
Similarly, giving dads concrete information about babies’ developmental milestones—cognitive, motor, social and emotional—can help dads realize just how much their interactions matter. And when they feel useful, they’re more likely to get involved. Singley likes to use ‘scaffolding’, where health professionals provide information on the baby’s development and advice on a specific way to support it. For example, if a baby has learned to grab things but not let go, health professionals can help the dad understand this behavior as a motor phenomenon, and then teach him ways to help his baby learn to let go (such as by giving the baby a spatula and then taking it from the baby in a playful way, like trading it for a spoon).
4. Support the father-partner relationship
“The relationship between parents is one of the really key psychological predictors of both partners’ mental health and how their children will do,” says Singley. “This is true even if they are not together or are a blended family.”
Healthy communication between all parents supports a healthy relationship. Health professionals can help parents develop healthy communication skills by asking them to engage in two weekly meetings: First, a “state of the union” meeting, where they discuss their relationship and what they can do to help one another feel emotionally supported; and then, a family operations meeting, where they go over the upcoming week and allocate responsibilities, including building in time for self-care and, if they’re a couple, for their relationship.
Health professionals can also talk with fathers about assertive communication skills, such as asking open-ended questions, actively listening, and re-stating their partners’ opinions before giving theirs. “These skills can help dads be more confident and preserve the relationship,” says Singley.
Interested in learning about more opportunities to support fathers? In this article, NICHQ CEO Scott D. Berns, MD, MPH, FAAP, shares why fathers are powerful allies for maternal and child health and offers suggestions for supporting fathers beginning in pregnancy.
Supporting Children’s Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic
While most children may be unlikely to have adverse health effects from the illness, COVID-19’s overall impact on children’s health outcomes will likely be far reaching.
Addressing Black Maternal Mortality Rates Starts with Listening to Black Women
In New York State (NYS), Black women are more than three times as likely to die from pregnancy or giving birth as white women. This disparity has persisted alongside the U.S.’s rising maternal mortality rate, which has doubled in the past 15 years. Recognizing the urgent need for change both within their state and across the nation, NYS launched an initiative to engage women of color in identifying sustainable solutions for improvement.
Four Steps to Address Racism’s Impact on Maternal and Child Health
Racism has been baked into U.S. systems and structures since enslavement, and Black families and other people of color are still suffering its consequences. As health professionals, it’s vital to acknowledge that all forms of racism—institutional, personally mediated and internalized—are real, are present in health systems, and are adversely affecting the health of Black families. One person can’t solve a systemic problem, but there are impactful steps everyone can take to help address it.
Using an Equity Lens to Reduce Maternal Mortality in Louisiana
Louisiana has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country. And troublingly, Black women are dying from pregnancy-related deaths at over four times the rate of white women. According to a recent report, more than half of these deaths could have been prevented by making a system change, either at the patient, community, or hospital level. These findings illustrate the enormous potential that quality improvement initiatives have for reducing maternal mortality in Louisiana and eliminating the Black-white disparity in maternal deaths.. Here, the Louisiana Perinatal Quality Collaborative shares seven opportunities for improvement.
How to Build Buffers Against ACEs and Their Consequences
Stressful events during childhood can have a negative impact across the lifespan. But building buffers can help all children thrive.
Building Agency and Self-Efficacy: A Vital Opportunity to Reduce Sleep-Related Infant Deaths
Understanding how to support agency can help health care professionals transform their conversations with families and tap new and innovative approaches. Below, Milt Kotelchuck, PhD, MPH, provides six practical opportunities, drawing on more than three decades of experience working in maternal and child health quality improvement.