Depressed Dads More Negative in Talking to Their Babies

UNITED KINGDOM–(ENEWSPF)–13 Aprl 2012.  Dads with ‘postnatal’ depression are more likely to fix on negatives and be more critical of themselves when talking to their new babies.

The study by Oxford University researchers is the first to look at the speech of new fathers with depression in their early interactions with their babies.

The Wellcome Trust-funded research is published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

‘We found there were differences in the way depressed dads talked to their babies compared to fathers without depression,’ says Dr Vaheshta Sethna, first author of the study at the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University. ‘They tended to be more negative and be more focused on themselves.

‘It is possible that babies will pick up on this negativity, that they will pick up on these cues even early in life. For example, the baby may have to respond differently to get attention,’ adds Dr Sethna, who has since moved to the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.

Around 4% or 5% of dads are thought to get depressed in the postnatal period, that’s about half the rate for mums. And as with postnatal depression in mums, it has been shown that their children are at increased risk of developing emotional and behavioural problems.

One way that depression could affect the children is in changing the way dads interact with their babies. So the Oxford research team set out to compare the speech of depressed fathers to their three-month-old children with fathers who were not depressed.

38 fathers, half of whom were depressed, were asked to play with and speak to their three-month-olds for 3 minutes. The babies were sat in their infant seats, and the face-to-face interaction videoed.

The fathers were all recruited in maternity units in Oxford and Milton Keynes and were matched in education level and age. The dads’ words were transcribed and scored by researchers who didn’t know which fathers were depressed. The results did not change when controlling for baby fretfulness.

The researchers found that dads with depression were more negative about themselves and their infants in their speech in comparison to fathers who weren’t depressed. Their words also focused more on themselves and their experiences, and less on the infants.Examples included: ‘I’m not able to make you smile’; ‘Daddy’s not as good as Mummy’; ‘Are you tired?’; ‘Oh-oh, Daddy hasn’t lasted very long, has he?’ and ‘Can’t think of anything to do all of a sudden’.

The proportion of comments showing some negativity rose from an average of 11% among dads without depression to 19% in dads with depression. The proportion of the dads’ comments that were focused on the baby dropped from 72% to 60%, while the proportion that focused on themselves rose from 14% to 24%.

Lead researcher Dr Paul Ramchandani of Oxford University says: ‘We want to try and work out the processes that lead to poorer outcomes in the children so we can work out where parents can be helped out.

‘More research has been done with mums with postnatal depression and there are a range of early interventions to help them in the way they talk and play with their babies. Depression in fathers is less well recognised and fewer fathers tend to come forward for help.

‘Interventions are often based on playing parents video feedback on how they are with their babies. We can show parents how their children are communicating back, helping them recognise this and respond.’

Dr Ramchandani notes that: ‘This was a small study and we have not yet investigated whether differences in the way fathers talk to their babies leads to poorer emotional development and behavioural problems later. That’s the next step.

‘He adds: ‘It’s important to remember that depression among parents doesn’t mean that the children are going to have problems. Most do not.’


  • The research reported in Psychological Medicine is part of a larger longitudinal study, the Oxford Fathers Project, which is looking at a variety of interactions between fathers and their infants over a period of years. The study is funded by the Wellcome Trust.
  • The paper ‘Depressed fathers’ speech to their 3-month-old infants: a study of cognitive and mentalizing features in paternal speech’ is to be published in the journal Psychological Medicine on Friday 13 April 2012.
  • The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.
  • Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Divisionis one of the largest biomedical research centres in Europe, with over 2,500 people involved in research and more than 2,800 students. The University is rated the best in the world for medicine, and it is home to the UK’s top-ranked medical school.

    From the genetic and molecular basis of disease to the latest advances in neuroscience, Oxford is at the forefront of medical research. It has one of the largest clinical trial portfolios in the UK and great expertise in taking discoveries from the lab into the clinic. Partnerships with the local NHS Trusts enable patients to benefit from close links between medical research and healthcare delivery.

    A great strength of Oxford medicine is its long-standing network of clinical research units in Asia and Africa, enabling world-leading research on the most pressing global health challenges such as malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS and flu. Oxford is also renowned for its large-scale studies which examine the role of factors such as smoking, alcohol and diet on cancer, heart disease and other conditions.