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An overview of 50 years of research research at the University of South California on how fathers influence children’s development during pregnancy has made several recommendations for public health services:
- Consider fathers’ health behaviors as well as mothers’,
- Assess and treat fathers’ mental health as well as mothers’,
- Treat family stress and attend to the couple relationship, and
- Provide access for fathers to family leave.
Much research focuses on how mothers-to-be influence babies’ health and development before and during pregnancy – touching on mothers’ environments, emotions, and behaviors. Mothers-to-be are often advised to alter their lifestyles accordingly.
Less attention is paid to fathers, but there is sufficient evidence to make a case for practice and policy to change in this regard.
This research review sets out seven ways fathers influence children’s development during pregnancy, providing a useful tool for planners of prenatal services and policies.
- Epigenetic and genetic changes: Prior health behaviors
- Obesity is associated with epigenetic changes that predict restricted growth in childhood.
- Alcohol affects the sperm epigenome and is a risk factor for alcohol use and alcohol sensitivity in offspring.
- Fathers’ diabetes and fast-food consumption predict earlier births.
- Epigenetic and genetic changes: Exposure to environmental toxins
- Exposure to workplace welding fumes is linked with higher prevalence of congenital abnormalities (Egyptian study).
- Fathers exposed to pesticides (e.g., nematocide, dibromochloropropane, ethylene dibromide) are more likely to have suboptimal sperm quality.
- Epigenetic and genetic changes: Early life stress
- Children of fathers who survived the Holocaust and fathers with post-traumatic stress disorder show epigenetic differences, namely increased DNA methylation in a promoter region of the glucocorticoid receptor. These are linked with increased prevalence of psychiatric illness and reduced cortisol levels in the children.
- Studies of mothers have shown links between their exposure to disasters (e.g., natural disasters, terrorist attacks, COVID-19) and outcomes for their children. No such research exists for fathers but it would likely reveal similar links.
- Neurobiological and hormonal changes
- First-time fathers with a higher prenatal testosterone level report less effective and positive parenting six months after the birth.
- First-time fathers with a higher prenatal oxytocin level endorse a more nurturing parenting philosophy after the child’s birth.
“This research review sets out seven ways fathers influence children’s development during pregnancy, providing a useful tool for planners of antenatal services and policies.”
- Influences on expectant mothers’ health behaviors
- Alcohol use by an expectant father is linked to higher alcohol use by pregnant mothers (Ukrainian study).
- Expectant mothers engage more in prenatal health actions such as stopping smoking when their male partners do more caregiving (e.g., listening to baby’s heartbeat, purchasing items for baby, attending prenatal classes).
- Influences on expectant mothers’ mental health
- A higher quality of couple relationship is associated with expectant mothers’ lower distress, which in turn is associated with more positive temperament of the baby (U.S. study).
- More relationship conflict correlates with greater incidences of medically complex births. Much research links prenatal stress in mothers to premature birth and low birth weight.
- Depression in expectant fathers correlates with depression in expectant mothers. Joint mental health symptoms in two parents prenatally predict the same symptoms in the parents 12 months after the birth, which in turn correlate with children’s executive function problems at 7-8 years (Finnish study).
- Influences on mothers’ hormones
- A couple’s hormonal levels tend to synchronize and follow similar patterns. Lower testosterone levels in both expectant parents predict greater investment by the father in the parenting relationship after the birth.
- When cortisol levels are lower in both expectant parents, there is likely to be less conflict between them before birth and less depression on the part of the father after the birth.
- Hormonal changes in mothers can affect fetal development and children’s long-term social and emotional development.
- Cardenas SI et al. (2021), Fathers matter from the start: The role of expectant fathers in child development, Child Development Perspectives