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Postnatal depression and fatherhood – what is the fathers’ role?

Iryna Culpin

Dr Iryna Culpin

11 October 2018

Fathers may play a key role in supporting mothers and children in families affected by post-natal depression, preliminary data suggests. But what is the nature of father involvement and is it important for children in families where mothers suffer from postnatal depression?

This was the question posed by Dr Iryna Culpin, the recipient of an Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Early Careers Fellowship, at the University of Bristol. The effects of maternal postnatal depression of child development have been thoroughly investigated; Dr Culpin was interested in how the relationship between the father and the child developed in these families, and the role it played in helping children to adapt successfully to their mothers’ mental health difficulties. She has used her Early Career Fellowship to analyse UK-wide datasets and initiate a pilot study which looked at father-mother-child relationships and child development in a context of maternal depression at sociological, behavioural and population levels.

First, an extensive literature review identified gaps and limitations in the existing scientific milieu to develop preliminary models to examine the impact of father involvement on child development in families with postnatal depression using UK birth cohorts. Research visibility and impact was also increased with a series of public engagement events and co-produced research projects, which have helped to strengthen links to community centres and families.

Alongside this, Dr Culpin initiated a pilot study to gain insights into fathering from the sociological perspective to understand fathers’ own experiences of parenting when their partner suffers from depression, as well as to look closely at how fathers interact with their young children in this context from the behavioural point of view. The data for this came from families recruited through the University of Bristol and the wider community. She also piloted novel technology to measure father - child interactions in the Children of the Children of the 90s (COCO90s) birth cohort.

And the results thus far are encouraging: “Initial analyses suggest that higher levels of paternal involvement during the early postnatal period reduce the risk of emotional disorders in children of postnatally depressed mothers. This finding is supported by preliminary qualitative data suggesting more involved, compensatory fathering and support of the partner, as well as nurturing of an exclusive father – child relationship and intimate bond.”

The work that she has completed during the Fellowship has enabled Dr Culpin to publish a number of studies, and to apply for a Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship in Humanities and Social Sciences.

The collaborations which Dr Culpin has fostered with experts in early child development, sociology and psychiatric epidemiology have resulted in several on-going projects looking at the effects of father child interactions in a variety of contexts and different cultures.

Dr Culpin, who studied Psychology and Psychiatry in Bristol, credits her Elizabeth Blackwell Institute award as invaluable for her career.

“My Fellowship with Elizabeth Blackwell Institute was instrumental in facilitating my training, fostering collaborations, and obtaining preliminary pilot data on father-child interactions in the context of maternal postnatal depression. These findings formed the basis for my Wellcome Trust Fellowship application.”

Further information

Iryna Culpin has since been awarded a £280,000 grant from the Wellcome Trust, to lead research taking a unique look at the role of fathers and their parenting when their partner has experienced mental health difficulties. Her Early Career Fellowship was instrumental in enabling her to successfully apply for this new funding. Read the full story.

The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), also known as Children of the 90s, is a world-leading birth cohort study, charting the health of 14,500 families in the Bristol area.

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