From losing weight to weight gain, to newfound responsibilities and financial pressures, the first introduction to parenting can affect physical and mental health in ways that are unthinkable before having children. This is why experts have been researching mothers’ general health and well-being after childbirth for more than 35 years. The same has never been true of fathers. Even though a father’s role in raising children is critically important to the family, researchers have spent little time trying to understand how fathers fare after the birth of a child.
But a new pilot study is finally shedding light on the plight of our nation’s fathers. And the photo shows a public health emergency among fathers who pay little attention to their own health once a baby enters their life.
Among 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 obese. Nineteen percent were smokers, and 13 percent became involved in binge drinking in the past month, according to the studypublished today in the journal PLOS One.
The poor nature of the new fathers’ general health has already jeopardized their longevity and ability to be there for their children, says study author Craig Garfield, Managing Director, a professor of pediatrics at the North-West University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Healthy men are more likely to have healthy children, participate in their upbringing and support mothers in parenting.
For some reason, most of the fathers did not try to reverse their health. Slightly less than half of the men did not have a primary care physician. About half of the fathers did not make a personal health visit for themselves during their partner’s pregnancy or since their baby was born. Thirty percent did not have health insurance.
“We miss the boat here with preventative care,” Garfield says. “Fathers need to know that preventive health can really lead to healthier families. These fathers are going to model healthy behavior for the next generation, so their choices matter. ”
And although there has been a movement in recent years to investigate new mothers for postnatal depression, there has been little work around the screening of 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 mothers, Garfield says.
Garfield, who was a stay-at-home dad in the year after completing his residency, 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 distress new fathers face.
The bottom line is that fathers are often overlooked by the health care 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 recognizing how important a father’s well-being is to his family. “It’s a missed opportunity … that we no longer readily embrace dads,” Garfield says.