By Ylva Parfitt, PhD student, University of Sussex
It is now well established that some mothers suffer from posttraumatic stress (PTSD) following childbirth, but what about the dads? In principle, fathers who witness a difficult or complicated birth may also experience symptoms of PTSD. However, research concerning PTSD in fathers is still scarce.
Qualitative studies (Eriksson, Salander & Hamberg, 2007; White, 2007) and quantitative studies (Johnson, 2002; Skari et al., 2002) suggest that men can experience intense fear and raised stress related to the birth of their baby. For example, Skari et al. (2002) found that 37% of mothers and 13% of fathers reported psychological distress with severe intrusive symptoms in 2% of fathers and 6% of mothers a few days after birth, reducing to 2% six months after birth for both genders. However, it is unclear whether men develop full symptoms of PTSD following childbirth. Bradley, Slade & Leviston’s (2008) quantitative investigation of PTSD in men six weeks after birth failed to find any cases of fully symptomatic PTSD, although 12% of men had symptoms on at least one dimension (mainly hyperarousal). In this study, PTSD symptoms in fathers were associated with trait anxiety, fewer children, unplanned pregnancy and being at the birth. In their recent review of mental health problems in fathers following childbirth, Bradley and Slade (2011) concluded that fathers attending the birth could experience intrusive thoughts and images, especially those who did not feel that they supported their partners sufficiently during the labour and birth.
If either parent suffers from PTSD this may have implications for their relationship with the baby (Muzik et al, 2013; Parfitt & Ayers, 2009). However, again research is limited and findings are inconclusive. One study of mothers and fathers found that PTSD symptoms were more strongly associated with bonding impairment than symptoms of depression (Parfitt and Ayers 2009), whilst another did not find any links between maternal PTSD symptoms and parenting stress (McDonald, Slade, Spiby & Iles 2011). A recent study using videos to examine interaction between fathers and infants found that symptoms of PTSD and depression were associated with less passive infant behavior and greater infant difficulty (Parfitt, Pike & Ayers, 2013).
There is currently very little research which has looked at the effects of PTSD symptoms in dads on their child’s development and well-being. In a study of PTSD symptoms in parents of preterm babies, Pierrehumbert, Muller-Nix, Forcada-Guex and Ansermet (2003) found that the severity of PTSD symptoms was associated with the child’s sleeping and eating problems at 18 months of age. Interestingly, eating problems were significantly associated with higher levels of PTSD symptoms in fathers, but not in mothers.
The lack of research in this area makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions at this time but it is clear that dads need to be considered more in research looking at postpartum PTSD and the impact of this on the family.