Many women struggle to deal with stress associated with having a child with autism, but new research suggests that fathers can play a big role in boosting moms’ mental health.

The extent that dads take a hands-on role in caregiving when children are young is directly tied to the level of depressive symptoms mothers experienced later, according to a study published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

The findings come from an analysis of data on more than 3,500 children — some of whom had autism or other disabilities — collected through the National Center for Education Statistics’ Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort.

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Researchers assessed the well-being of the children’s mothers and examined fathers’ involvement in various everyday activities like play and bathing. The study looked exclusively at families where children lived with both biological parents for the first four years of life.

Among 9-month-olds later diagnosed with autism, the study found that increased involvement of dads in activities like reading to their child or soothing them when they were upset led to fewer depressive symptoms in moms by the time the children reached age 4.

“In family systems that include children with autism, the stressors are huge, and mothers need all the support they can grasp,” said Brent McBride, a professor of human development at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign who co-authored the study. “We, as a society, have to ask men to become involved, and it’s very important that men fully understand the reasons why their support and active engagement in parenting is so critical for the family’s functioning and for the child.”

Previous research has suggested that mothers of children with autism experience greater levels of stress, depression and anxiety.

McBride said the current findings indicate that professionals should work more carefully with families who have a child on the spectrum to increase involvement from fathers in parenting activities.

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