Attention, expectant dads: Moms aren't the only ones who experience health risks before or after birth.
Even though fathers-to-be don't go through the physical changes of carrying a child, some have insomnia, nausea, irritability or even labor pains, a condition called Couvade syndrome, or sympathetic pregnancy. And about 10 percent of fathers develop prenatal or postpartum depression, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
While most men won't face these more extreme symptoms, they still may gain weight, feel tension or neglect to care for their own chronic conditions, said Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas pediatrician and co-author of "Expecting 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Pregnancy."
Ironically, she said, physical and mental-health issues that come along with pregnancy and childbirth may be side effects of a positive social development — fathers helping their partners more with labor and child-care responsibilities.
"We often focus on the supermom trying to do it all, but I think there's also a superdad," Brown said. "There's a lot of stress and strain on your physical health if you don't take care of yourself."
Here are five tips to help dads-to-be stay healthy.
Fathers who educate themselves in advance about what to expect during labor and afterward tend to be more prepared as partners in delivery and childcare and less stressed overall, Brown said. They can go with their partners to prenatal doctor's appointments, take classes and read books.
Another strategy is to talk to other fathers, said Bruce Linton, founder and director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Fathers' Forum programs. Conversations with other men can help dads-to-be feel less isolated and more empowered, he said.
"A lot of men are socialized to be very strong and in control, so when they start to experience the emotions around being a father, it's very disorienting," Linton said. "Being in a group where other men talk about their feelings, whether happy or sad, tearful or joyful, seems to reassure them that those feelings are normal."
Expectant dads shouldn't just tag along to their partner's appointments but schedule their own, Brown said. It's important that they check their overall health including cholesterol and glucose levels.
"A new pregnancy is an opportunity for you to take care of yourself because your child is going to need you to be around," she said.
While at the doctor, fathers also can take an important and often-neglected step to keep their babies safe — ensuring they're up to date with their vaccinations. Vaccinating against whooping cough, also called pertussis, and flu are two of the big ones, said Lance Rodewald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Immunization Services Division. A 2007 study found that 71 percent of babies who get whooping cough catch it from someone in their household.
"Very young babies can't be vaccinated until they are two months old, and even one vaccine does not give them full protection," he said.
Whooping cough is included in the Tdap vaccine, which also protects against tetanus and diphtheria.
Right now expectant fathers should get both separate seasonal flu and H1N1 (swine flu) shots, Rodewald said. But this year's seasonal flu vaccine, expected to be available in August or September, will include H1N1 protection.
Only 15 percent of employers offer designated paid paternity leave, according to 2009 data from the Society of Human Resources Management.
But almost all American working fathers — about 89 percent — take some time off for a baby's birth, whether paid or unpaid, or under family, sick, vacation or other leave categories, according to a 2007 study, thought to be the nation's only large, comprehensive research on paternity leave. It examined data collected in 2001 from 4,500 two-parent families.
The study didn't explore the effect of taking more time off specifically on men's stress, but it's easy to extrapolate that not having to juggle work and child care must be less exhausting, said Jane Waldfogel, the study's co-researcher and professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University School of Social Work.
"In the first two weeks, one hardly has time to take a shower, much less make it on time to work," Waldfogel said.
Two decades ago, many fewer men took time off, but the game-changer was the passage of the federal Family Medical Leave Act in 1993, which mandated that certain employers must allow eligible workers to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a family member, she said. The high rates with which men take paternity leave suggest that even tough economic times are unlikely to reverse the trend, she said.
If you're willing to take unpaid time off, your boss may even see it as a company cost-saver, Waldfogel said. Or if work obligations make possible only a few days' leave, consider asking to work part-time during a baby's first weeks.
Pregnant women are commonly told to consume 300 calories more per day, but when they crave a milkshake fathers often have one, too, Brown said.
Pregnancy is a great time to break bad eating habits, such as grabbing a bag of chips while watching the big game, she said. Seeing their dad eat junk food can lead children to develop poor eating habits. And wolfing down too many of the wrong kind of calories can increase a man's risk for diabetes, heart disease and other health problems that affect his ability to parent over the long haul.
"It really takes a family to change a lifestyle, and the time to start is now while your wife is pregnant," Brown said. "It's much easier to stick to a healthy diet when both of you are doing it."
While stress and sleep deprivation seem likely culprits for depression among expectant and new fathers, studies so far suggest depression rates for new fathers are highest three to six months after a baby's birth, said Dr. James F. Paulson, lead author of the JAMA study and associate professor of pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Fathers with partners exhibiting depression also are more likely to have symptoms themselves, he said.
New dads in the U.S. are more likely to experience prenatal and postpartum depression than their international counterparts, the study found. American men reported a 14.1 percent rate compared with 8.2 percent of men in other countries.
To compound matters, expectant fathers aren't routinely screened for depression, meaning some men are left to self-diagnose and seek help for a condition they may feel uncomfortable admitting they have, Paulson said.
"Expecting dads need to keep themselves aware of the symptoms of depression, but it's also something that couples should focus on together," he said. "Be aware of the phenomenon and that it might happen to you."
Some signs of depression, according to the Mayo Clinic, include irritability, insomnia, feelings of sadness or unhappiness, loss of interest in favorite activities, appetite changes and concentration troubles.