We know that dads' unsavory health and lifestyle choices—drinking too much, cigarette smoking, binging on high-fructose corn disasters—can negatively affect living children. But what about their unborn kids? Yep, those too.
When a pregnant women drinks, drugs, or smokes cigarettes, people make a big fuss and sometimes even send the mom to jail. But when a potential/prospective dad engages in unhealthy behaviors, people don't talk about it much. A new article suggests that one reason is sexism: women are the nurturers whose bodies house the babies, right? So it's their job to take care of those little lives, and the menfolk are off the biological-lifeline hook once they've planted their seed. Also, scientists have historically denied that any connection between babies' health and their dads could ever exist, because apparently wombs are like vacuums. As a result of these two factors, little research has been done on the issue.
"The implications of this research deficit are huge," the article asserts. "Some 60 percent of all birth defects today are of unknown origin; tracing even a small fraction of these back to men's environmental exposures would constitute a major public health advance."
Over the years, a few scientists have actually tried to explore how men's health and lifestyle choices might impact birth conditions. In the 1960s, pharmacologist Gladys Friedler injected male rats with morphine to see what would happen, and discovered that the drugged-out rat dads produced abnormal rat babies. Though a cause/effect relationship seems pretty likely to us, Friedler's colleagues didn't agree. Well, you know those lady scientists, right? They'll blame anything on a man, even if he's a rat man. (No word if Friedler ever shot a B-grade horror flick starring the rat babies.)
"It didn't occur to me that you're not supposed to look at fathers' roles in birth defects," Friedler says. These days, you're allowed—but the number of people exploring the relationship doesn't sound very large. Scientists have studied the effects of smoking, exposure to workplace chemicals, and other habits and environmental factors on men's sperm, and have found that wonky sperm can lead to childbirth issues and birth defects. Yet this information takes a backseat to all the talk about women's roles. Seems kind of illogical: Last time we checked, males were usually important players in the baby-making process.
As the article points out, cigarette packages don't warn men about the relationship between smoking and birth defects. Also, "[a] woman who drinks while she's pregnant can be prosecuted, but most men have no idea that drinking in the months before conception is risky." As a society, we've come to accept this imbalance of attention as though it were normal. But studies show that we're wrong for doing this, because men aren't just there to provide the sperm and move on down the road—their behavior could affect babies' health a lot more than anyone realizes. Certainly, the possibility merits greater attention than it's historically gotten.
A professor at Rutgers says that over the years she's noticed more and more young men reckoning with the fact that their behavior might produce health risks for their future mini-me's. When they learn about the potential connection, they're "angry" that nobody ever explained that all those keg stands and, some studies suggest, loads of caffeine could have any such consequence. (No more triple-shot pumpkin spice lattes for you, prospective dads!) This trend, if real, provides some hope that the dads of the future will become more involved in their children's health and make lifestyle changes when necessary. Friedler, for her part, has been trying to spread the word about how men's health affects children for more than four decades. Hopefully it won't take four more decades for the idea to catch on.
Overall, the article takes a pretty feminist position in presenting its subject, but one thing's irksome: the title, which refers to a "bad daddy" factor. Are dads "bad" because they have vices and addictions? No—weakness and badness are different things. Also, a dad who doesn't know that his pack-a-day cigarette habit will mess up his kid's health isn't bad, just ignorant. So let's leave the good vs. bad talk out of this discussion, and resolve the lack-of-awareness problem.
The Bad Daddy Factor [Miller-McCune]
Image Nufkin/via Flickr