The finding came from new research published in the journal Pediatrics which analyzed over 31,000 Norwegian kids and their parents.
Several previous studies have shown that the mental health of a mother, during and after her pregnancy, may have an effect on the health of the child. One study showed that children's early experiences with a mother suffering from a severe mental illness can influence their long-term health and development.
Anne Lise Kvalevaag, leading researcher and a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway, said:
"The results of this study point to the fact that the father's mental health represents a risk factor for child development, whereas the traditional view has been that this risk in large is represented by the mother. The father's mental health should therefore be addressed both in research and clinical practice."
The team of experts interrogated the dads when the moms were 4 to 5 months pregnant. They were asked about their mental health, for instance, whether they felt depressed or afraid.
The mental health of the moms was provided by the mothers themselves, as well as the behavioral, social, and emotional development of their children when they were 3 years old.
Rather than looking at particular diagnoses in kids, the scientists collected information on whether they had experienced frequent mood shifts, got into fights, or had feelings of anxiety, explained Kvalevaag.
High levels of psychological distress were reported by 3% of the dads. The team discovered a link between the mental health of the father and the development of a child.
The children who had the most emotional issues at age 3 were the ones whose dads were the most distressed. The researchers pointed out that this study did not demonstrate a direct cause-and-effect association.
The authors explained that there are various possible means that may account for the relationship. For example, Kvalevaag explained, the fathers may be passing on a genetic risk to the child. The mental health of the soon-to-be mom could also be influenced by the dad's depression, therefore, causing an effect on the unborn baby, suggested another scientist.
"If a father is highly distressed, that could affect the mom's secretion of hormones during pregnancy, it could affect her sleep, her own mental status," said Daniel Armstrong, professor of pediatrics and director of the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
"The prenatal mental state of the father is likely to predict the postnatal mental health of the father and this may also account for some of the associations found," Kvalevaag revealed.
The experts noted that the study had a few limitations, for example, the mental health data was taken from self-reports, which are not always reliable.
Prior studies have indicated that infants are seen as being more troublesome by depressed moms as opposed to more impartial onlookers, explained Michael Rice, associate clinical director of the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
The answer to this problem may be fairly simple, Armstrong said. "When mom comes in for appointments, we should at least be raising the question of how dad's doing. That's probably a question that's never asked."
"This study gives a more complete picture. When we talk about preventative mental health and preventing these things in the kids, we really need resources there at the prenatal stage for both the mother and the father."