There's no question that there's a lot to be concerned about for people who are trying to conceive. Even though pregnant women and women who are trying to conceive often receive the majority of unwarranted health tips from friends and family, it turns out that a dad's health matters to the baby, too. A dad's health prior to conception can affect their baby's health, according to new research. And experts say we need to bring dads into the conversation more when it comes to preparing for pregnancy, birth, and fatherhood.
Three papers published Monday in the journal The Lancet analyzed how the health of parents-to-be — both females and males — before they even conceive a child can have an affect on the health of their children. The data showed that the health of fathers can influence a pregnancy and a baby, and impact things like birth weight and brain development, according to CNN.
In one of the papers, "Origins of lifetime health around the time of conception: causes and consequences," researchers concluded that both "poor maternal and paternal physiology, body composition, metabolism, and diet" can impact offspring "with consequences persisting into adulthood." One of the key findings is that paternal lifestyle — and not just the lifestyle and health of the mother, which are often the main focus of public concern — can influence the long-term health of a child before they're even conceived.
While researchers have determined that a father's health can make an impact on his child's health before they are born, it's still not entirely clear why, and more research is needed to better understand the influence, according to WTKR CBS.
Milton Kotelchuck, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital who was not involved in the new papers, told CNN:
There's more to pre-conception health for men -- the impact of men's health on subsequent pregnancies -- than the quality of their sperm.
Does he help the woman or harm her in getting prenatal care? Does he give support or not support? ... Does he have sexually transmitted diseases?
The father's genes also are very important in the development of the placenta and whether the placenta's nurtured well enough.
Based on their analysis, researchers found that both maternal and paternal nutrition around the time of conception had similar effects on offspring weight, according to the second paper in the series. The paper argued that the connection between a mother's diet and the long-term health of her children has been studied quite a bit, but analysis of how a father's diet impacts his kids is still limited. "However," the paper stated, "links are emerging between paternal lifestyle, sperm quality, and impaired offspring health."
For The Lancet series, researchers reviewed studies in human and animal models. Researchers seemed to mostly look at studies of mice to draw some of their conclusions, and admitted that whether the impact of poor paternal diet on the development and wellbeing of his offspring is equally important to that of poor maternal diet is still unknown. The conclusions were also based partly on two analyses of women of reproductive age — from 18 to 42 — in Britain and Australia, according to CTV.
But more research is definitely necessary. Researchers wrote in one of the papers that studies that look at "concurrent paternal and maternal interventions on shared offspring outcomes" are necessary, and that we also need further studies on how parental diet and lifestyles impact offspring, pre-conception and in the long-term.
Study co-author and Professor of Life Course Epidemiology at University of Queensland (UQ), Gita Mishra, explained that when it comes to the diet and health of men specifically, paternal weight could impact an unborn child’s future health. Mishra said, according to SBS (an Australian public broadcasting radio, online, and television network):
A father’s obesity has been shown to associated with impaired fertility and has been shown be linked with increased risk of chronic disease in offspring.
Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, a San Francisco-based reproductive endocrinologist, told CNN that there needs to be more of a focus on preparing fathers to be parents. Of course, not every pregnancy is planned, and you can't always plan ahead and try to get healthier before trying to have a baby. But Eyvazzadeh noted that there seems to be little guidance for men before they become fathers, and that "all people should get a pre-conception checkup."
Kotelchuck also said that he and his colleagues found that 40 percent of men at a hospital in Boston reported that they were not even asked questions when they accompanied their partners to prenatal care visits (he noted that their research is still underway, however, and not yet published). He told CNN:
There's very little talking to men. There's almost no brochures that speak to men and men's interests. If you do pre-conception care for women because you're interested in the health of not only the baby but also the woman over her life course ... you have to talk to dads in the same way.
It's definitely a good idea to bring men into the conversation, and not just focus on helping women prepare to conceive, go through a pregnancy, and become parents. Papers like the ones The Lancet recently published make it very clear just how important it is for all parents-to-be to be well-informed, so their kids have the chance to get the best start in life possible.