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Pediatricians Need To Help 'Sad Dads'

A depressed father hugs his children.

Take a bow, American fathers. Dads of today are far more involved in raising their children than their fathers were.

But with that greater involvement comes greater responsibility. And a new study in the journal Pediatrics finds some trouble brewing. Fathers who are depressed are far more likely to spank their 1-year-olds than dads who aren't.

Researchers gathered data on the parenting habits of more than 1,700 fathers of 1-year-olds. They found that dads determined to have been depressed in the past year were four times more likely to spank their children.

All told, 15 percent of the fathers in the study said they'd spanked their kids in the past month. But dig a little deeper and the link with depression looks pretty stark. Thirteen percent of dads who weren't depressed reported spanking their kids. Among the depressed dads, however, 41 percent had given a spanking.

These findings, taken together with results from previously published studies, "suggest a concerning pattern of negative parenting behavior in depressed fathers with young children," the authors write.

Corporal punishment continues to stir controversy, but the authors of this report note that there's mounting evidence it's not the best approach. They also say it's not likely a 1-year-old will figure out that a spanking is due to bad behavior.

The researchers found that most fathers — 82 percent overall — had talked with their kids' doctor in the past year. And that's an opening for physicians to look for trouble and to intervene. "Well-child visits may be an opportunity to screen fathers for depression and refer them for treatment," they write. That approach has helped the kids of depressed moms, research shows.

An accompanying commentary titled, "Sad Dads: A Challenge For Pediatrics," makes the case for pediatricians to get involved. "The field of pediatrics is now faced with finding ways to support fathers in their parenting role much in the same way we support mothers," the authors write.

Doctors should pay close attention to parents' mental state in the first year after a child is born. That's when depression is most likely to strike mothers and fathers. And there are diagnostic tools to help, including the Edinburg Postnatal Depression Scale. If the questions suggest parents are depressed, pediatricians can refer them for help.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.