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  • Writer's pictureJulie Lee

Is It Normal to Feel Overwhelmed as a New Dad?

Updated: Jun 25


Perinatal Mental Health Support for Dads and Co-parents
Is It Normal to Feel Overwhelmed as a New Dad?

 

Introduction

Becoming a new father or co-parent is one of the most profound life changes one can experience. The transition into parenthood is a unique adaptation period, unlike anything else. While the focus often falls on caring for the mother and the baby, it’s crucial to recognise the significance of the father's or co-parent's mental health during this time. Your well-being is a key part of parenthood, and taking care of yourself is essential for the entire family's health.


The Overlooked Reality of Perinatal Mental Health in Men and Co-parents

Historically, research, media coverage, and support around perinatal mental health have predominantly focused on women. As a result, new fathers and co-parents might feel this area is less relevant to them. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Research indicates that 5-10% of dads and co-parents experience postpartum depression and 5-15% experience perinatal anxiety, with higher rates observed when babies are 3 to 6 months old. These symptoms are increasingly recognised, diagnosed, and treated, highlighting the need for awareness and support for fathers and co-parents.


Witnessing Birth: A Potential Trauma for Dads and Co-Parents

For many new fathers and co-parents, witnessing the birth of their child can be a deeply unsettling and even traumatic experience. Whether it’s a straightforward delivery, an instrumental delivery, or an emergency caesarean section, the experience can be distressing. Recent media focus on birth trauma often centres on women, but dads and co-parents can also be traumatised, even if the mother is not. Trauma is subjective and depends on individual experiences rather than the event itself. Many partners describe feeling like helpless observers, powerless to alleviate their loved one's pain.


Post-Birth Challenges and Emotional Well-being

After bringing your new baby home, time can feel like it's simultaneously standing still and flying by. The days may drag on, yet weeks and months seem to pass in a blur. New fathers and co-parents often face intense, overwhelming emotions and a need to appear strong for their partner and family, which can take a toll on emotional well-being.


Paternity leave, typically just a couple of weeks, might not feel sufficient. Adjusting to this new life, often on minimal sleep, while balancing work and home responsibilities can be incredibly challenging.


Factors Influencing Paternal Mental Health

Paternal mental health challenges in the perinatal period stem from psychological, physiological, and social factors, including:


  • Stress related to pregnancy and childbirth

  • Lifestyle changes: Increased responsibilities, financial concerns, lack of sleep, reduced social life, and new role challenges

  • Hormonal changes: Linked to fathering stress, depressive symptoms, and partner aggression

  • Emotional changes: Feelings of inadequacy and helplessness

  • Societal gender constructs: Pressure as providers, reluctance to seek help, and conflict between traditional and contemporary fatherhood expectations

  • Changing relationships with partners


Common Challenges Reported by Dads and Co-Parents

Many partners report these challenges affecting their mental health:


  • Increased responsibilities, such as additional housework or caring for multiple children

  • Discrepancies between expectations and reality

  • Feeling unsupported or unappreciated

  • Returning to work prematurely

  • Financial pressures

  • Changes in the relationship with their partner

  • Sleep deprivation


Recognising and Addressing Paternal Postnatal Depression

The incidence of depression in new fathers and co-parents during the first year is double that of the general population. Approximately 25% of dads and co-parents experience mild depressive symptoms, and around 10-12% are diagnosed with depression. The peak time for postnatal depression in men is three to six months post-birth, often going undiagnosed as symptoms can resemble typical new-parent stress.


Hormonal changes in fathers and co-parents, including shifts in testosterone, oestrogen, cortisol, vasopressin, and prolactin levels, may contribute to postnatal depression. Symptoms in dads and co-parents may include:


  • Fear, confusion, helplessness, and uncertainty about the future

  • Withdrawal from family life, work, and social situations

  • Indecisiveness, frustration, irritability, cynicism, and anger

  • Marital conflict and partner violence

  • Negative parenting behaviours

  • Substance abuse

  • Insomnia and various physical symptoms like digestive issues, headaches, and nausea


The Impact on Relationships and Children

Postnatal depression in fathers and co-parents can strain the relationship with the baby’s mother and affect their bond with the child. Fathers and co-parents may engage less with their children, communicate negatively, and discipline more harshly. This can lead to emotional, social, and behavioural problems and developmental delays in their children.


Seeking Help and Support

If you have concerns about your mental health or that of your partner, seeking help from a GP is crucial. Early intervention can access support services that significantly improve outcomes for the entire family. Just as with mothers, recognising and addressing the mental health needs of fathers and co-parents is essential for fostering a healthy, supportive family environment.


Conclusion

New parenthood is a monumental life change, demanding adaptation and resilience from both parents. Acknowledging and addressing the mental health challenges faced by dads and co-parents is critical. By supporting each other and seeking appropriate help, families can navigate this transition more smoothly and build a healthy, nurturing environment for their children.


I work with both parents in relation to paternal mental health at all stages of the process, that being, antenatally, postnatally and during the whole 4th trimester and beyond! If you'd like to book a FREE initial telephone call then please get in touch via my website. I offer counselling and EMDR Therapy both in-person and online.


Julie

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