Dads’ disrupted sleep is often overlooked
Fathers’ Day is around the corner, so it seems appropriate to take some time to talk about dads and sleep. Most discussions about parenting and sleep tend to focus heavily on mothers. There is plenty of good reason for that. Particularly with newborn and young children, moms are more often the parent who is up with a child throughout the night—feeding, soothing, and helping the child return to sleep. Despite changing social and family dynamics—including a sharply increasing number of stay-at-home fathers—mothers continue to take on the majority of nighttime caregiving duties, according to research.
With regard to sleep, scientific study has focused more of its attention on mothers, whether examining the impact of parenthood on mothers’ sleep, or looking at how mothers’ sleep and waking behavior influences their children’s rest.
Dads can often get left out of the conversation about parenthood and sleep. But a growing body of research indicates that there is, in fact, a lot to talk about when it comes to fathers and sleep. Studies indicate that dads suffer pretty significantly in their own sleep when they become parents. Research also suggests that fathers’ involvement can exert and important influence over children’s sleep habits.
Dads sleep less than moms?
A recent study conducted in Great Britain suggests that fathers of young children are sleeping less than mothers—in part because dads are taking more of a hands-on role in nighttime parenting responsibilities. The study, which examined sleep among parents of children under age four, found that many fathers to young children are sleeping less than mothers. Forty-three percent of dads reported sleeping between 4-6 hours a night, compared to 38 percent of moms. Fifty-seven percent of moms reported sleeping 7 hours a night or more, compared to 53 percent of dads.
When asked about nighttime changings, 7 out of 10 fathers said they get up in the middle of the night to change diapers (or “nappies”), while less than two-thirds of moms reported rising for nighttime diaper duty. (The study found that British moms are still handling the majority of daytime diaper changes.)
Other recent research also suggests that new fathers’ sleep is affected in ways that are different—but not less significant—than disruptions to new mothers’ sleep. A 2013 study by scientists at West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh compared sleep among new, first-time mothers and fathers. Researchers found that dads slept less overall than moms, and that fathers had higher levels of daytime sleepiness than mothers. Moms’ sleep was more frequently interrupted by awakenings throughout the night, according to the study results.
New fathers also logged less sleep time than new mothers in a 2004 study by scientists at the University of California San Francisco. Researchers examined sleep patterns and fatigue in new parents, tracking sleep among 72 couples through the final month of pregnancy and the first month postpartum. Fathers slept less than mothers over the 24-hour day both at the end of pregnancy and in the earliest weeks of parenthood. Dads’ sleep patterns remained relatively stable through the transition from pregnancy to parenthood, while moms’ sleep patterns underwent significant changes after childbirth. Postpartum, moms slept less at night than they had during pregnancy, and slept more during the day.
While both new moms and new dads experience sleeplessness, sleep disruption, and fatigue, research suggests that mothers and fathers aren’t always recognizing accurately the others’ sleep struggles. Research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh looked at perceptions of sleep and mood in new mother-father couples. They found that mothers underestimated how often fathers awakened at night, and overestimated fathers’ sleep quality. Fathers, for their part, underestimated how much time moms spent awake at night and overestimated the severity of moms’ mood disturbances. It’s important to note that accuracy of partners’ perceptions of each others’ experiences are linked with more positive relationships. So, having a strong and realistic sense of what partners are going through may help new parents weather the relationship challenges that come with new parenthood.
Dads make a difference to kids’ sleep
While much scientific research about child sleep issues focuses on mothers, some recent investigations have explored the influence that dads may have over children’s sleep patterns and the quality and quantity of their sleep. One recent study examined the role of fathers in young children’s sleep problems. Scientists found that among young children with sleep disturbances, fathers were more likely to be less involved with caregiving and less sensitive in their parent-child interactions. They also found that among families with a child struggling with sleep problems, higher levels of fathers’ involvement had a positive effect on mothers’ stress.
Paternal involvement during the earliest months of parenthood can have a significant, positive influence over newborns’ sleep—as well as new mothers’ sleep. Recent research found that more involvement by fathers in daytime and nighttime caregiving when infants were three months old was associated with better sleep for infants and moms when the babies were six months old.
A study released this year suggests that higher levels of “health literacy” among both mothers and fathers also makes a significant difference to children’s sleep. Health literacy is the ability to acquire and understand basic information and services regarding health. Researchers found that lower levels of health literacy in parents are linked to shortened sleep duration in children.
Sleep amid changing family dynamics
Paying attention to fathers’ sleep is important—important for men’s health, performance, and quality of life. Research that investigated the occupational safety of new fathers found that new dads experienced fatigue and sleeplessness that was associated with compromised work safety behaviors. There are many complicated factors that can contribute to differences in sleep among fathers and mothers. Innate differences in how men and women respond to insufficient and disrupted sleep, changing social and familial dynamics involving parents’ roles in the workplace and in responsibilities for caregiving and work in the home are forces that can influence how much, and how well, moms and dads sleep.
Fathers—and families as a whole—stand to benefit from a greater understanding of how men experience sleep in relation to parenthood, and how fathers’ sleep patterns can affect the sleep and waking lives of children and adult partners.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™