New dads experiencing 'pathological sleep deprivation'

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

New fathers are experiencing "pathological" sleep deprivation and fatigue according to a new and comprehensive review - and it's placing them at risk of mental health and relationship problems and safety issues in the workplace.

"There are some really significant problems with sleep among fathers," lead author Dr Karen Wynter of Deakin's School of Nursing and Midwifery, tells Essential Baby, noting that new dads' fatigue shouldn't be dismissed as just part of having a new baby. 

"We were noticing that fathers were struggling with their sleep but didn't feel they could complain because 'it's not about them'," she says, adding with a laugh, "We're not saying mothers are not tired, we know that."

But while there's clear evidence of a link between sleep-deprivation and mental health problems in new mothers, the impact on dads was less clear. To examine this, Dr Wynter and her colleagues conducted a review of 30 studies exploring the sleep (or lack thereof!) of fathers with babies up to 12 months old. They found that fathers' sleep problems were associated with poorer mental health, relationships with partners, and safety compliance at work. 

"Most fathers are in the clinical range for what doctors would describe as pathological sleep deprivation," Dr Wynter says of their findings, which have been published in the journal Midwifery. "Looking at average time spent in bed versus time spent sleeping, studies have even shown that many fathers are in the range for what would be considered a clinical level of insomnia."

And, according to Dr Wynter, this can have far reaching implications. 

"This level of sleep deprivation is quite concerning," she notes. "When people are sleep deprived to that degree, their functioning and safety is quite heavily impacted. There's a real safety implication here for fathers, particularly as we've seen this can impact their safety procedures at work and their psychological wellbeing."

Dr Wynter notes that fathers are in the workplace in various settings "and if they're not complying with safety regulations then it means maybe they shouldn't be driving or looking after young children. It impacts all areas of their functioning. It's alarming."

The review also found a strong association between poor sleep and depression. Relationships with mum and bub can also suffer, too. 

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"The more fatigued the father, the poorer the relationship with their partner," Dr Wynter says. "Dads can also become more irritable, particularly when coping with crying babies. We know that if you are tired you're going to be more irritable and there is some research that crying babies can make fathers snap a bit," Dr Wynter explains. "If you have that constant crying it's hard not to take it personally. There's a risk of anger and even abuse if you're very tired. That's why if the root of the problem of the fatigue is an unsettled baby you can receive help for that."

Interestingly, the review also found that while fathers clocked more sleep over time, they didn't feel less exhausted. "The fatigue didn't resolve with rest," Dr Wynter says. In fact, some dads became more fatigued. "That's to do with the cumulative effect of being exhausted and having the extra demands on you."

So what can parents do?

Dr Wynter's advice is clear: care and communication. "The most important thing is to negotiate with your partner so you both get as much rest as possible," she says. "Talk about those opportunities to take turns to rest. One parent can have an afternoon sleep on the Saturday and the other on the Sunday. Make sure both have chances to sleep through the night.  And keep an eye on each other."

According to Dr Wynter health professionals, partners and families all need to be mindful of how dads are adjusting to fatherhood.

"It would be so good if somebody in the early days would check in on fathers and ask are you OK? How's your sleep? Are you managing some rest? But it doesn't always happen.

"But it's so important that fathers don't struggle on their own because it's not good for their partner or their baby if they do."

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