Conference Coverage

Early births stress dads too


AT WPA 2017

– The anxiety of a preterm birth affects fathers just as much as it does mothers, significantly increasing depression rates both before and after the baby arrives.

More than one-third of fathers developed depression after their partners were admitted to a hospital with signs of impending preterm labor – similar to the percentage of mothers who experienced depression during that time, Sally Schulze reported at the meeting of the World Psychiatric Association.

Sally Schulze, University of Frankfurt Michele Sullivan/Frontline Medical News

Sally Schulze

“Fathers are also affected by the risk of preterm birth, and the risk seemed to continue to exert psychological strain, even among fathers whose partners went on to have a normal-term delivery,” said Ms. Schulze, a psychologist who specializes in birth-related stress at Frankfurt University.

The increased prevalence of depression lingered, too, she said. Even at 6 months after the birth, the rate of depression among these men was 2.5 times higher than in the general population.

Ms. Schulze and her colleagues prospectively followed 69 couples in which the woman was admitted to the hospital at high risk of preterm birth. These women had a mean gestational age of 30 weeks and had symptoms of imminent preterm birth: shortening of the cervix, premature rupture of membranes, or active preterm labor. Ms. Schulze compared this group to 49 control couples with no signs of preterm labor, who had come to the hospital to register for a birth at a mean of 35 weeks’ gestation.

The majority of the pregnancies were singletons; there were two twin pregnancies, but no high-order multiples. Couples whose infant died were later excluded from the study.

Both mothers and fathers completed the Edinburg Postnatal Depression Scale at baseline, and at 6 weeks and 6 months after the birth. The survey has been validated for perinatal use. A score of 10 or higher is considered positive for depression.

She divided the preterm birth risk group into two subgroups: couples whose infant was born preterm (26) and couples who made it to term, either by staying in the hospital for treatment and observation, or after being stabilized and released home (27).

Upon admission to the hospital, 35% of the fathers in the preterm birth risk group scored positive for depression, compared with 8% of the fathers in the control group – a significant between-group difference.

“This is especially meaningful when we consider that the background rate of depression among men in Germany is 6%,” Ms. Schulze said. “So our control group fathers were right in line with that, but depression in the preterm birth fathers was significantly elevated.”

At 6 weeks’ postpartum, men in the preterm birth risk group still were experiencing significantly elevated rates of depression, compared with both the control group and the general population. The increase was apparent whether the infant had indeed been born early, or whether it made it to full term (12% and 15%, respectively). Both were significantly higher than the 5% rate among the control group fathers.

“We have to understand that these fathers are now 6 weeks at home with a healthy infant, but they are still experiencing the stress of being exposed to this risk of preterm birth,” Ms. Schulze said.

By 6 months, depression had eased off in fathers whose infants made it to term; at 5%, it was similar to the rate in the control group fathers (4%) and the general population. But many fathers whose babies came early still were experiencing depression (12%).

Ms. Schulze then compared the fathers’ experience to that of the mothers. At baseline, women at risk of preterm birth had exactly the same rate of depression as their partners (35%). However, depression also was elevated among women in the control group (18%). The background rate for depression among German women is 10%, Ms. Schulze said.

At 6 weeks’ postpartum, the timing of birth did not seem to matter as much to the mothers. Depression rates were similarly elevated in those who had a preterm birth and those who did not (25%, 28%). Both were significantly higher than the 17% rate in the control group.

At 6 months, things were leveling out some for these mothers, with depression present in 10% of the preterm birth group, 19% of the full-term birth group, and 13% of the control group.

“Men seem to suffer just as much stress from this experience as women do, although perhaps in a different trajectory,” Ms. Schulze said. “Although there may be different contributing factors, we believe that the psychological care offered to mothers at risk of preterm birth should also be extended to fathers.”

She had no financial disclosures.


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