Dads' sleep deprivation and fatigue at 'pathological' levels

Media release
08 June 2020

A new and comprehensive review of sleep, mental health and wellbeing among fathers of infants finds new dads are enduring "concerning" levels of sleep deprivation and fatigue.

Dr Karen Wynter, from Deakin’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, conducted the review with colleagues from Deakin’s School of Psychology and other Australian universities. The review included 30 studies finding substantial sleep disruption exists among fathers - sleep complaints that can go unrecognised by professionals and impact fathers' mental health, relationships, and workplace safety.

Dr Wynter, a founding member of the Australian Fatherhood Research Consortium, said sleep deprivation and fatigue was clearly interfering with fathers' psychological wellbeing and daily functioning.

"There are some really significant problems with sleep among fathers," Dr Wynter said.

"Most fathers are in the clinical range for what doctors would describe as pathological sleep deprivation. 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.

"This level of sleep deprivation is quite concerning. 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 said there was a "significant association" between fatigue and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as relationship problems between fathers and their partners.

"The more fatigued the father, the poorer the relationship with their partner," she said.

"Sleep deprivation and fatigue have been shown to lead to poor impulse control, including becoming angry and easily irritable. A big gap in the research at the moment is the impact that poor sleep could have on the relationship between the father and the child, which needs to be explored further."

Dr Wynter said health professionals consulting with families with young infants could improve fathers' mental health as well as family functioning by including father's sleep in their assessments of family needs and treatment plans.

"Nobody is actually checking in with the fathers at the moment," she said.

"There's a need for better screening tools, and health professionals need to check in with the father as well as the mother. They have the perfect opportunity to do this when fathers are available at consultations with their partners and infants.

"Fathers might not respond to questions regarding their mental health or emotional state, as they can experience this stress in different ways. Checking in could be as simple as asking how they're sleeping. Once these problems have been identified, there are programs we can use to address the root causes, first and foremost through programs to help if the infant is unsettled."

Dr Wynter's full scoping review on sleep, mental health and wellbeing among fathers of infants up to one year postpartum has been published the in Midwifery journal.

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