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Almost one in five fathers of babies born before 30 weeks’ gestation experience depressive symptoms, while half suffer moderate anxiety that persists throughout the first year of their baby’s life, according to new research.

The collaborative study, led by the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health at Monash University, explored the mental health of fathers of babies born very prematurely and its impact on their early parenting behaviours.

It followed the journey of 100 fathers of babies born before 30 weeks’ gestation, uncovering depression and anxiety triggered by the extra pressures and responsibilities to navigate.

Conducted in the Centre for Research Excellence in Newborn Medicine at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, the study asked fathers about their symptoms of depression and anxiety shortly after the baby’s birth, around the baby’s expected due date, and again at three, six and 12 months after the baby’s expected due date.

At 12 months, fathers and their babies were filmed during a play session so a range of parenting behaviours could be examined.

Research lead Grace McMahon, from the Turner Institute, said fathers’ experiences following very premature birth were rarely studied and crucial to understand given the potential stress from concerns about their baby’s health and managing family and work activities, as well as the importance of fathers for babies’ wellbeing and development.

The study found the experience of more severe mental health symptoms had little effect on fathers’ parenting behaviours with their baby at 12 months.

“The high rates of fathers reporting persistent mental health difficulties in this study is concerning and highlights the need to include fathers in ongoing mental health screening and support following very premature birth,” Ms McMahon said.

“While our finding of minimal impact of depression and anxiety symptoms on fathers’ early parenting behaviours is encouraging news for fathers with mental health difficulties, we do believe that these relationships are complex and further research is needed to better understand the experiences of fathers following very premature birth.”