How infant sleep affects fathers


Most people think that mothers experience the bulk of sleep deprivation after the birth of their child because they breastfeed, but scientific findings provide a different perspective.

While the study of postnatal sleep disturbances primarily focuses on mothers, considering their role in childbirth and feeding, it’s really important to recognize the chaotic sleep schedule that comes with caring for a newborn. During those early months, babies operate on this constant loop of waking up, feeding, and dozing off again, which ends up throwing parents’ sleep routines into disarray and leaving them feeling drained and fatigued.

On the other hand, we haven’t delved deeply into how fatigue and disrupted sleep affect fathers, particularly their mental health. Fathers often return to work sooner than mothers, mainly due to the brevity of paternity leave. However, jumping back into the workforce amid sleep deprivation carries substantial risks.

While a father’s involvement in infant care significantly impacts maternal mental well-being, we can’t ignore the toll that sleep deprivation takes on new dads. It can lead to heightened irritability, anger, and a loss of self-regulation, affecting not only the individual but also the entire family dynamic.

In light of this, let’s examine how infant sleep affects dads’ sleep and well-being.

Fatigue vs. tiredness

Fatigue and tiredness are often used interchangeably, but they describe different experiences. 

Tiredness typically refers to a temporary state of low energy or weariness that can be relieved by rest or sleep. It’s a feeling of being physically or mentally drained after exertion or lack of sleep.

Fatigue, on the other hand, is more profound and persistent. It’s characterized by overwhelming tiredness, both physically and mentally, that doesn’t improve with rest or sleep. Fatigue can be chronic and debilitating, affecting a person’s ability to function effectively in their daily life.

Unlike tiredness, fatigue is overwhelming tiredness, coupled with constant exhaustion and lack of energy which in turn causes impaired cognitive and physical functioning. Furthermore, studies suggest that fatigue can also lead to postpartum depression.

Paternal fatigue

Parenthood can cause sleep deprivation and fatigue for both mothers and fathers. In a recent review which included a sample of 14,000+ fathers, findings indicate that:

  1. Levels of stress, anxiety, and mental health issues are more common among fathers when their child experiences sleep problems.
  2. Fathers are tired too and experience sleep deprivation and fatigue, albeit less than mothers.
  3. Sleep deprivation directly contributes to depression.
  4. Co-sleeping can help fathers bond more with their babies.
  5. Sleep-deprived dads experience more verbal conflict and relationship problems with their partners.

The study examined fathers who were primary wage earners, not caregivers. There is a preconceived notion that fathers sleep well because they don’t usually wake up to care for the baby through the night. However, their sleep was worse than expected and sleep disturbances do negatively impact them.

Paternal postnatal depression

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) examined 26 studies investigating the correlation between infant sleep and paternal parenting, self-efficacy, and mental health. Studies indicate that paternal postnatal depression is affected by child-driven and parent-driven factors.

The NIH found that depression among fathers might partly be caused by –

  1. Perceived infant sleep problems at four and six months.
  2. Baby’s bedtime struggles at eight and 12 months of age.
  3. Unhealthy bedtime habits at nine months, including being placed in the crib already asleep or being put to bed with a bottle.
  4. Frequent night awakenings at the one and three-month mark.

Additionally, the study found that in terms of self-efficacy and competence, fathers experience significant self-doubt. In other words, if the baby is having difficulty sleeping, fathers often assume they are responsible in some way. This is despite mothers being more involved in a baby’s sleep rituals than fathers (at least in the first three years of life).

Furthermore, according to an article published by UT Southwestern Medical Center, one in every 10 dads experiences postnatal depression. As a result, pediatricians are being encouraged to conduct postpartum depression screenings on both parents.

Can paternal depression affect the baby?

Yes, paternal depression can affect the baby. Research suggests that fathers experiencing depression can influence various aspects of their child’s development and well-being.

Paternal depression can have adverse effects on the well-being of the child, such as –

  1. Fewer well-check visits and less attention to the baby’s health.
  2. Disruption of the marital and family relationship.
  3. Decreased emotional engagement between father and child.
  4. Impact on the child’s socioemotional development.
  5. Influence on the child’s behavior and mental health outcomes.
  6. Contribution to family stress and conflict.

Therefore, fathers must be given the right support and treatment. Depression can impact both men and women at any time. 

Why do dads experience prenatal and postnatal depression?

A 2019 study found that fathers are at a high risk of depression during the first trimester. Furthermore, the study indicated that depression among fathers peaks between three and six months postpartum. Prenatal and postnatal depression among dads can occur for a variety of reasons, including:

  1. Hormones: Most fathers experience a shift in hormones, particularly lowered testosterone, during their partner’s pregnancy and after.
  2. Partner’s depression: If mothers are depressed, then at least half of the husbands/partners show signs of depression as well.
  3. Parental disconnection: Fathers often feel disconnected from the bonding experience with the baby as the mothers inadvertently exclude them by monopolizing the baby.
  4. Psychological adjustment: Becoming a parent takes getting used to and requires a great deal of coping, which can be overwhelming for new dads.
  5. History of depression: If depression runs in a family, it could affect fathers during their partner’s pregnancy and after the birth of their child.
  6. Sleep deprivation: Most fathers (and moms) fail to recognize their sleep deprivation and how it contributes to anxiety and depression.

Other factors can contribute to paternal depression, such as a lack of support at work (short paternity leave), financial troubles, relationship problems, recent loss, and a premature birth or a colicky baby.

Signs of paternal depression

Depression among men and women presents differently. While fatigue, appetite changes, and sleep difficulties are traditional symptoms, men display fewer emotional expressions, like crying.

However, there are some signs to look for both during a partner’s pregnancy and afterward, including:

  1. A sudden outburst of anger or violent behavior.
  2. Sudden risk-taking or impulsive behavior like increased alcohol consumption.
  3. A lack of motivation, including working more or less.
  4. Increased irritability.
  5. Suicidal thoughts.
  6. Difficulty concentrating.
  7. Withdrawing from relationships.
  8. Physical symptoms like indigestion, headaches, muscle aches.

Common anxiety symptoms in expectant and new fathers

A 2021 study found that anxiety is also common among men during and after their partner’s pregnancy. Anxiety can cause:

  1. Panic attacks.
  2. A feeling of impending doom.
  3. Difficulty concentrating.
  4. Excessive worry and nervousness.
  5. Obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

A 2020 editorial published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics encouraged pediatricians to assess mental health among all new parents irrespective of gender. If these symptoms of depression persist longer than two weeks, it is best to consult a doctor.

How can new parents prioritize sleep?

According to The Sleep Foundation, parents should prioritize their sleep to have the energy to care for their new baby and recommend –

  1. Create a restful sleep space: Create a good sleep environment for yourself as you would for your child – a cool, quiet, and dark bedroom for optimal sleep.
  2. Establish boundaries with visitors: Saying no to friends and family who want to visit during the first few months of your baby’s life so you can develop a routine that helps your little one sleep well and in turn, you.
  3. Share nighttime care duties: Take turns waking to feed, change, or comfort your child through the night so that each parent has an ‘on’ or ‘off’ day and gets optimal sleep.
  4. Engage in self-care activities: Take time for yourself to read a book, play a video game, or go for a run can help to significantly boost your mental health.

While fathers are not always the primary caregivers to their children, infant sleep problems can impact fathers’ sleep even more than we once believed.

Today, it’s becoming increasingly important to encourage healthy sleep patterns among fathers to avoid symptoms of sleep deprivation such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, and more.

Fathers play an important role in the upbringing and happiness of their children and family. Getting help and good sleep will ensure you’re happy and healthy and can show up for your partner and your child/children.



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