In the weeks after a baby is born, both parents are likely to develop depression. Paternity leave, recognized for its benefits on family balance, child development and gender equality, could be one of the keys to preventing this pathology that affects one father and almost two out of ten mothers. Using data from over 10,000 heterosexual couples participating in the Elfe Cohort Study, a team of researchers from Inserm and the Sorbonne University at the Pierre-Louis Institute of Epidemiology and Public Health studied the impact of two weeks of paternity leave on the risk of postpartum depression in each parent. While the results show that fathers who have taken or intend to take this leave are less at risk of developing postpartum depression, this risk appears to be higher in mothers whose spouse has taken paternity leave. These works, to be published in Lancet Public health, support the importance of family policies aimed at fathers and question the modalities of paternity leave beneficial to the mental health of both members of the couple.
Postpartum depression is a common phenomenon among new parents: in healthy people, 17% of mothers and more than 10% of fathers are at risk of developing it within a year of giving birth. For some parents, the occurrence of a depressive episode in this crucial period for family and social life heralds the onset of depressive disorders which may persist over time.
Following the 2019 European Union Work-Life Balance Directive, the European Parliament has encouraged policies that promote the equal sharing of parenting and domestic tasks between mothers and fathers. Paid paternity leave is seen as one of the policies to achieve this goal and studies have already shown that it is associated with fathers’ increased participation in household chores and child rearing, which improves family and relationship dynamics and which had positive consequences on the emotional, psychological and social development of the child. Additionally, studies have shown that, among new parents, feeling socially supported and generally satisfied with their relationship were associated with a reduced risk of postpartum depression.
To consolidate existing data, a research team led by Maria Melchior, Inserm research director at the Pierre-Louis Institute of Epidemiology and Public Health (Inserm/Sorbonne University), sought to look at the impact of taking two weeks of paternity leave (paid and without risk of job loss) on both parents’ risk of developing depression two months after the birth of their child.
For this, the researchers used data from the Elfe cohort study, which includes more than 13,000 French mothers and nearly 11,000 fathers whose children were born in 2011.
Each participating couple indicated whether the father had taken or intended to take paternity leave. Two months after the baby was born, the participants filled out a questionnaire to assess whether they suffered from depression. Their responses were analyzed taking into account a range of socio-economic (employment-related) and health characteristics of families, which may influence the use of paternity leave.
At 2 months, more than 64% of fathers had already used paternity leave, 17% said they wanted to use it and almost 19% had not used it and have no intention of using it. 4.5% of fathers who took paternity leave and 4.8% of those intending to take had had postpartum depression compared with 5.7% of those who did not.
Among mothers, on the other hand, an opposite trend is observed: 16.1% of mothers whose partner has taken paternity leave have postpartum depression compared to 15.1% of those whose partner intended to take paternity leave and to 15.3% of those whose partner has not used paternity leave. leave.
Thus, while taking or planning to take 2 weeks of paternity leave is associated with a reduced risk of postpartum depression in fathers, spouse taking paternity leave does not appear to have a significant beneficial effect in mothers.
“ In addition to the advantages that paternity leave can confer in terms of family dynamics and child development, it could therefore also have positive effects in terms of the mental health of fathers, comments Katharine Barry, Inserm PhD student at the Sorbonne and first author of these works . On the other hand, the negative association observed in mothers could suggest that a duration of 2 weeks of paternity leave is instead not sufficient to prevent postpartum depression in mothers. »
According to the scientists, this negative association in mothers could be due to the unequal distribution of time dedicated to childcare and/or a selection bias.
” Indeed, although we took into account many possible confounders, we could not sufficiently assess the preexistence of depressive disorders other than another pregnancy in the mothers. It is therefore possible that fathers whose partner is more at risk of depression are more willing to take paternity leave, says Maria Melchiorre. Our findings, however, underscore the importance of father-focused family policies for parental mental health, continues the researcher, because they can promote gender equality in the labor market and increase fathers’ participation in the family sphere. »
Future research should therefore examine the impact that the length and timing of paternity leave may have on parental mental health and child development, including as the period of paternity leave extends into 2021.
 The French Longitudinal Study from Childhood (Elfe) is a French national cohort of children followed from birth to adulthood to study family, economic and socio-cultural factors that can influence children’s development.
 Or the average length of paternity leave in OECD countries in 2021. In France, paternity leave was created in 2002 and extended in 2021 from 11 to 25 consecutive days.
 In this study, participating fathers had up to 4 months after their baby was born to take paternity leave.