The Daddy Blues Are Real

Dads go through a hormonal and emotional transition to parenthood too

by Charles Schaeffer, PhD

Q: Why am I so stressed out? I'm not the one who had the baby!

Irritable. Stressed. Nervous. Down. Every week, I meet or talk with new dads who share that this is how they feel in the first few months after their baby is born, but they have no idea why. They've probably heard about postpartum depression and are aware of the hormonal changes and shifts that impact the mood and well-being of pregnant women and new moms. But it's also likely that no one has talked to them about the emotional impact of becoming a father.

However, existing research indicates that when men enter fatherhood they also go through a lot of chemical and biological changes that can impact their mood and feelings. So don't worry, new dads – you aren't going crazy, but you are going through a lot of changes. And you are entitled to feel however you are feeling.

Biochemical and neurological development is changing you
Starting during your partner's pregnancy, your hormones begin to shift in a way that hasn't happened since puberty. Testosterone levels decrease as other hormones related to emotional responsiveness and attention increase. There's a very good reason for these changes: It's nature's way of equipping you with the biological building blocks you need to care for a newborn. These changes give men an increased sensitivity to crying, a deeper capacity to bond, and a stronger drive to protect and care for others – all qualities that make a good father.

But these shifts can also lead to increased anxiety, stress, sensitivity, irritability, and fatigue, just as with the hormonal changes women have. Indeed, research has indicated that although these hormonal changes are adaptive, they are related to symptoms of depression and anxiety in men. For most men, these symptoms will pass – a daddy blues similar to the baby blues that new moms go through. Others, especially fathers with a family or personal history of depression and anxiety, may need more support and help from a mental health professional. 

Don't underestimate the effects of sleep deprivation
Most people recognize and validate the impact of sleep deprivation on new mothers, but few realize that fathers also sacrifice a lot of sleep to care for their child and partner. Recent sleep research indicates that if new fathers return to work following their baby's birth, they may actually be more sleep-deprived than partners who stay home with the baby.

What happens when new parents face this kind of sleep deprivation? Our bodies are built to prioritize vital processes such as digestion, muscle repair, breathing, and cardiovascular health. Because we can't survive if the hardware doesn't work. So what's left? The software.

When our bodies and brains need to conserve energy, higher order systems (like emotional regulation, logical reasoning, and sustained attention) are the first functions to be affected. And these are the very skills we need to cope with anxiety, irritation, demoralization, stress, and fatigue, so it's not surprising so many fathers report increased difficulties controlling their anger or managing their worries in early parenthood.

You've never done this job before
If you were thrown into a high-stakes job without any formal training, supervision, or education, how would you feel? Probably pretty stressed out! Well, that's exactly the experience most fathers have when they first become a parent. There is no formal training or education to prepare for parenthood. Most men I work with have never thought about fatherhood in this way, and it can bring a lot of relief when they do. After all, who hasn't felt some degree of stress, confusion, worry, irritation, and fatigue when starting a new job?

When you add it all up, it becomes clear that feeling moody, stressed, or irritable is a perfectly understandable reaction to this big change in your life. So give yourself a break. And rather than asking yourself what's wrong with you for feeling this way, instead ask yourself what you need to feel better.

If you are in Greater New York City, you may be interested in attending the Seleni Institute’s New Dads Group. Learn more about all of our program offerings.

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Charles Schaeffer, PhD

Charles Schaeffer, PhD, is a psychologist at Seleni where he utilizes different methods of treatment including cognitive-behavioral, sleep enhancement, mindfulness-based, and psychodynamic therapy. He has spent the last nine years working with adults, adolescents, and children who are experiencing stress, insomnia, anxiety, and depression at several locations including New York University, Mount Sinai Medical School, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the New York City Public School System. He is an internationally recognized scholar, career coach, and research contributor for Deloitte, and he applies his research on work-life balance, caregiving, and career development to help parents negotiate the demands of work and family. When not in the office, Dr. Schaeffer enjoys creating media designed to help people understand and apply psychology to everyday life including his column for the Daily Meal, Mind Over Meal.

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