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Interrupted sleep a disheartening reality for many new parents

For new fathers, insomnia can persist long after the baby has settled.  

Interrupted sleep is a given when you’re a new parent. But a recent review from Deakin University has revealed that new dads are experiencing concerning levels of fatigue, even once the infant is sleeping consistently.  

Dr Karen Wynter – from Deakin’s School of Nursing and Midwifery Western Health Partnership – conducted the review with colleagues from the University’s School of Psychology, in collaboration with other Australian institutions. 

She found that sleep disruption, if left unresolved, can negatively impact the father’s mental health, relationships, and workplace safety. 

Adjusting a newborn’s sleep patterns 

For many parents, interrupted sleep can be debilitating. It’s not as innocuous as waking up in the middle of the night and taking a little bit longer to drift back to sleep. 

According to Dr Wynter’s review, some new fathers are experiencing pathological levels of sleep deprivation. 

“We expect a certain amount of sleep disruption among new parents, as newborn babies have different sleep rhythms to adults,” she says.

“However, we found that even when the disruptions lessen, the insomnia persists.

“This can continue until the baby is 6 months old.”

Even though parents of any gender will experience sleep deprivation, a new mother’s sleeping experience seems to vary in comparison to that of a new father. 

Some studies have found that mothers and fathers experience similar levels of fatigue, while others show that mothers can struggle even more, especially during breastfeeding. 

A need for father-inclusive services 

Although mothers and fathers alike can experience interrupted sleep during the early stages of their parenthood, postnatal health services tend to prioritise the health of the baby and the birth mother. 

Dr Wynter says that fathers can often feel excluded from these services. 

“Some fathers don’t feel welcome to attend health service consultations with their partners and babies. When they do, they are often not included in the conversation.”

These feelings can stem from traditional understandings of parenting roles assigned to mothers and fathers. 

For instance, as Dr Wynter points out, the universal health service in Victoria is known as the Maternal and Child Health service. The focus is clearly aligned with the birth mother and child. 

It can be tricky for health professionals to cover the wellbeing of the whole family unit during their consultations. They have a limited amount of time to address a range of factors that could affect the health of the family.  

Dr Wynter believes a radical change in the health system is required. 

“We need more time allocated for consultations, and for some of these to be held after hours. We also need specific training for health professionals regarding father-inclusive practice. 

“Fathers can experience symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress after the birth of an infant.

“If fathers are struggling, this has implications not only for them but for their relationships with their partners and babies too.” 

Sharing the load

For new parents, poor sleep quality and poor mental health can feel like a never ending cycle. 

Disrupted sleep can leave us feeling exhausted and irritable. And these same feelings can keep us up at night. 

“Sleep deprivation can lead to poor mental health, but poor mental health can also lead to poor sleep,” says Dr Wynter.

“It’s not clear which is the chicken and which is the egg! But there is robust evidence that when one is present, the other is often present too.”

This relationship is further complicated when a newborn is thrown into the mix. 

Dr Wynter recommends that parents communicate with each other and share the load.

“In the early days, with a newborn in the house, it’s really important to negotiate sleeping arrangements with your partner. Take turns to sleep in on Saturdays and Sundays or have an early night if you can.”

Dr Karen Wynter is a research fellow at Deakin University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery Western Health Partnership. She’s also a researcher within the Centre for Quality and Patient Safety in the Institute for Health Transformation.

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