Fatherhood and Health

Happy Father’s Day, new fathers! Pregnancy, labor, and post-partum recovery get a lot of attention, but fatherhood can have its own, lesser-known health issues.

A very small number of men experience what is called couvade, or sympathetic pregnancy. A pregnant woman’s partner feels weak or sick along with her, and may even gain a small amount.

Though very rare, this is normal; in fact, it’s a cultural expectation in some parts of the world, where it can go as far as sympathetic labor pains. The cause is unknown, but the condition is genuine, and researchers have found hormonal changes in expectant fathers.

Similar hormonal changes may be behind the emotional changes new fathers often experience, parallel to post-partum depression. Last autumn a study found that men experience a drop in testosterone when they become fathers, especially if they’re actively involved in parenting their newborns. The researchers speculate that this may lower aggression, making men less prone to lash out at or hurt their new babies. That protective feeling you had when you read that sentence is exactly the point.

You may be happy to know that in addition to the obvious benefits, fatherhood can improve your overall health. It lowers your risk of heart failure by about 17 percent, helps protect you from depression in the long term, and has been found to spur many men to eat healthier and make better nutritional choices.

It’s important, of course, to deal with the stress of new fatherhood, such as the additional responsibilities, the financial strain, loss of sleep, and having less time and intimacy with your partner—who’s not only likely to be dealing with similar issues but also recovering from the physical toll of pregnancy and childbirth. The most important thing you can do is to be actively involved from the first in child care. In fact, if you can, stay with your family at the hospital—more and more hospitals are creating family rooming facilities in maternity wards. You can’t breastfeed, but other forms of interaction will help you feel like part of the picture, help your partner not feel alone, and help your child’s development.

Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. For all parenthood is natural, it’s a new experience, and much of it is bound to be uncharted territory for you.

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  • http://twitter.com/GonzoJuano Juan Gonzales

    It’s interesting that Fatherhood reduces the risk of heart failure and depression.  I believe I’ve read the marriage does the same.  However, as noted above it would see the added stress from the responsibilities of having a family and potential family strife might offset these benefits.  After all about 50% of marriages end in divorce — associated with very high stress and higher chance of heart attacks.  I suspect initially marriage and kids might be associated with better heath, but as time goes on and the relationship with one’s partner (and perhaps teenage child) decline, one’s health might be at higher risk than never starting a family in the first place.