High paternal testosterone may protect against postpartum depressive symptoms in fathers, but confer risk to mothers and children

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Abstract

Following the birth of an infant, decreases in testosterone and increases in depressive symptoms have been observed in fathers. Paternal testosterone may reflect fathers' investment in pair-bonding and paternal caregiving and, as such, may be associated with maternal and familial well-being. This study tests associations between paternal testosterone, paternal and maternal postpartum depressive symptoms, and subsequent family functioning.

Within 149 couples, fathers provided testosterone samples when infants were approximately nine months old and both parents reported on postpartum depressive symptoms at two, nine, and 15 months postpartum. Fathers with lower aggregate testosterone reported more depressive symptoms at two and nine months postpartum. Mothers whose partners had higher evening testosterone reported more depressive symptoms at nine and 15 months postpartum. Maternal relationship satisfaction mediated this effect, such that mothers with higher testosterone partners reported more relationship dissatisfaction, which in turn predicted more maternal depressive symptoms. Higher paternal testosterone and paternal depressive symptoms at nine months postpartum each independently predicted greater fathering stress at 15 months postpartum. Higher paternal testosterone also predicted more mother-reported intimate partner aggression at 15 months postpartum. In addition to linear relationships between testosterone and depression, curvilinear relationships emerged such that fathers with both low and high testosterone at nine months postpartum reported more subsequent (15-month) depressive symptoms and fathering stress.

In conclusion, whereas higher paternal testosterone may protect against paternal depression, it contributed to maternal distress and suboptimal family outcomes in our sample. Interventions that supplement or alter men's testosterone may have unintended consequences for family well-being.

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