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Autism & parenting: Dad’s involvement crucial to mom's mental health

Study finds father’s early engagement with baby is particularly important to mom's mental health when child goes on to develop autism
July 15, 2015

New research finds that a father’s early and interactive engagement in childcare is particularly important to a mother’s mental health when their child has autism.

Reporting in Maternal and Child Health Journal, the researchers looked for associations between a father’s style of caregiving when a baby was 9 months old and a mother’s symptoms of depression when their child reached age 4. In all, the researchers followed the parents of 3,550 children, including 50 children with autism and 650 children with other disabilities.

They found that mothers of children with autism reported significantly fewer symptoms of depression when their children were four years old if the father had read to the child as a baby or otherwise engaged in responsive caregiving activities such as soothing the baby or taking the baby to the doctor.

By contrast, the researchers did not find this strong association between a father’s early engagement with the baby and the mother’s later mental health among couples with typically developing children or whose children had other disabilities.

The involvement of fathers in caring for children with autism may be especially important, as previous research has shown that the mothers of children with autism tend to experience much higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety than do other mothers, the researchers conclude.

“It can be very frustrating for parents – and upsetting for children – when children struggle with communication … one of the key criteria of autism,” notes lead author Daniel Laxman, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison's Waisman Center. “If fathers are reading to their kids, telling stories or singing songs, it’s going to be very beneficial for the child's development of communication skills."

“Increased stress in families is a well-known consequence of raising a child with autism,” comments Lucia Murillo, Autism Speaks assistant director of education research. “Making sure the primary caregiver, which most often is mom, has a sufficient support system is extremely important. It’s likewise important to remember that grandparents, aunts, uncles and parent support groups can ease some of this stress.” (Dr. Murillo was not involved in the study.)

In addition, Dr. Laxman notes, some research has suggested that conflict can arise between parents when both become highly involved in child care. "It's important that parents try to be in as much agreement as possible,” he says, “and when they're not in agreement, to reach a decision so they're interacting with their children in a consistent way."

The families were participants in the National Center for Education Statistics Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort, which collects information at ages 9 months, 2 years and 4 years. 

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