Mental health

If you want to take care of your baby, you need to take care of yourself

After all, there's a reason you put your own oxygen mask on first

It’s tempting to describe the sensation of uselessness experienced by many fathers to newborn babies, me included, as feeling like a third nipple. But one of those would be quite handy when the mother has a dagger-gummed human milking machine permanently clamped to her cracked, bleeding areolae.

My wife and I recently welcomed our second daughter into the world, so it’s not our first rodeo. However, the big difference this time is that my wife is breastfeeding. Our first had to be given a bottle for medical reasons – the silver lining being that I could give the baby feeds from the off, and my wife much-needed respite.

With our second, my wife bears sole responsibility for providing sustenance, which has left me feeling like a spare part. While I don’t miss the Sisyphean washing and sterilising of bottles, I do lament the loss of bonding time that I got while feeding our first, and if the second cries from hunger when I’m holding her, I have to hand her to the indispensable parent who can give her what she needs. I’m a placeholder.

‘About 5 per cent of fathers suffer PTSD from watching their partners in pain and not being able to do anything to help’

This isn’t a cry for help: my wife has it much harder, trying to recover from giving birth while being tortured with sleep deprivation and nipple clamps. But having a baby and the aftermath thereof is not easy for dads either. It’s thought that about 5 per cent of fathers suffer PTSD from watching their partners in pain, or the terrifying ‘complications’ that can arise, and not being able to do anything to help.

Paternal Post-Natal Depression meanwhile affects as many as one in four new fathers. According to Dads Matter UK, which supports fathers worried about depression, anxiety and PTSD, men are more likely to recognise the physical symptoms of depression, like feeling tired or losing weight. They’re also more likely to self-medicate with drink, drugs and gambling rather than seek help. That said, a good friend of mine hospitalised himself after experiencing panic attacks, dissociation and ‘intrusive thoughts’ following the birth of his son, fearing that he was having a psychotic episode. Thankfully he wasn’t, and he’s now back on track having completed a course of antidepressants.

Feeling tired, anxious and even depressed occasionally after having a baby is pretty much universal for men and women, but it’s vital that mothers and father pays attention to perinatal mental health. As I was told at our NCT group, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else.

I got into cooking after our first was born because it was a way that I could help, and I’m useless at DIY. Unknowingly, I was following the advice of the NHS, which also suggests carrying shopping, bringing mum refreshments while she’s breastfeeding, mucking in with housework and changing nappies – a dirty, weirdly yellow job, but one I can do.

Jamie Millar is our regular fatherhood writer and baby ablution aficionado