Is Having A Baby More Depressing Than A Death In the Family?

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A study of new parents out of Germany makes the claim that having a baby is more hazardous to mental well-being than divorce or the death of a partner.

The main goal of the study was to explore why the birthrate in many developed countries has dropped and remained low, and why there is often a disparity between how many children people say they want, and how many they actually have.


Researchers followed 2,016 previously childless German couples from the birth of their first baby until about two years after. Repeatedly asked the question “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?”, the participants rated their wellbeing from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied).

The couples were generally satisfied prior to the birth of their baby, with happiness growing in anticipation. But following the child’s birth, only 30% of parents reported the same or greater levels of satisfaction. The rest—70%—said that their happiness had decreased. A lot.


Writing about the study in the Washington Post, Ariana Eunjung Cha explains:

Of those new mothers and fathers whose happiness went down, 37 percent (742) reported a one-unit drop, 19 percent (383) a two-unit drop and 17 percent (341) a three-unit drop.

On average, new parenthood led to a 1.4 unit drop in happiness. That’s considered very severe.


It’s hardly surprising that new parents reported states of disgruntlement — having a newborn or a young baby is difficult, fraught with sleepless nights and previously unknown challenges (at least, so says my Facebook feed).

The results from the study give pause because the severity of the “happiness drop” is extreme by comparison to other studies that have used the same measurements. Divorce has been measured as a 0.6 drop and the death of a spouse or partner at 1.0. Babies averaged a 1.4 drop, and parents who had previously stated a desire for more children stopped after one. The association of negativity was particularly high for older parents and those with higher levels of education.


In the study, the challenges of parenthood were divided into three categories that affected the urge to reproduce again. First considered were health problems of pregnancy (as it was felt by both genders), and secondly complications during birth. Third and most pressing was the ongoing gauntlet of childrearing. Cha writes that “Parents reported exhaustion due to trouble breast-feeding, sleep deprivation, depression, domestic isolation and relationship breakdown.”

She adds that the study suggests parents need more support in countries where declining birthrates have become a cause for concern. For couples considering the life-changing move, the study may give pause—or at least alert them to somewhat more realistic expectations for their bouncing bundle of joy.


[Read the full scientific study in Demography]

Top Image: Washington Post