Earlier this week, NPR posted a story that offered some surprising data on sleep deprivation in new parents, arguing that studies had shown that FATHERS often got less sleep than mothers during their first few weeks with a newborn baby at home.
I know what all of you mothers are thinking right now — YEAH RIGHT — but if you look at the data, there are some interesting revelations about the poor assumptions that new parents make when they’re playing the “who’s more tired” game.
The NPR story featured excerpts from a new book, The Informed Parent by Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham, Ph.D., which bills itself as “a science-based resource for your child’s first four years.” While discussing Haelle and Willingham’s research, NPR noted that:
“One 2013 study of 21 mother-father pairs enjoying their first infant experience found that fathers actually got less sleep than the mothers and experienced more confirmed sleepiness, as measured using wrist trackers. The study authors also found that even though the mothers got more sleep, their sleep was disturbed more often, which makes sense given their role in feeding.”
However, the article suggests that, despite their feeding schedules, mothers appeared to have more opportunities to “make up” sleep with the infant during the day, while fathers missed the opportunity to bank more rest time — in part due to work commitments or lack of parental leave.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Informed Parent’s research is that it chose to include fathers at all. Many of the prior parental sleep deprivation studies ONLY collected data on mothers. But these new studies show how vital it is to include partners when evaluating how tired new parents are.
So, are these studies suggesting that dads have it WORSE than moms when it comes to taking care of a newborn?
NO. Absolutely not.
But they are suggesting that new moms and dads often make incorrect ASSUMPTIONS regarding how tired their partners are. To quote my favorite passage from the NPR article:
“The women didn’t think the men were as sleep deprived as the men felt, and the men thought the women were moodier than the women felt. Just one more reason that a good partnership is key for surviving the stresses of parenting an infant.”
As a dad, THIS makes sense to me. I’ve lived that. I totally agree with that. The kind of sleep deprivation that you endure as a first-time parent is insidious. It can destroy relationships. And the only way to fight it is to be open and honest with your partner and to work together to help each other get some rest.
The key is communicating. When my daughter came home from the hospital, my wife and I were punch-drunk and terrified. We were constantly second-guessing ourselves and were so keyed up that it made getting any good solid sleep almost impossible. And it didn’t help that my wife was recovering from a caesarean and that our daughter was having difficultly with breastfeeding.
We were wired, on edge, and looking for someone to blame. And, in those first few days, we tore into each other, often out of sheer exhaustion.
But, then, quickly, we realized that all we had was each other. We had to look out for one another. We had to endure these first few hard weeks. The three of us — mom, dad, and baby — had to team up and help our family survive.
So, we started looking out for each other. We slept in shifts. We policed each other. If my wife wanted to wash the dishes or start some laundry during one of her sleep shifts, I stepped in, stopped her, and did those jobs myself. If I was reading email rather than sleeping, my wife called me out on it. Fortunately, thanks to the breastfeeding issues, our daughter was taking both the breast and a bottle, which meant that with a little preparation, I could handle the overnight feedings with some pre-pumped milk if my wife really, really needed to get some shut-eye.
And I think that’s the key element of The Informed Parent’s new research. The idea that sleep-deprived parents are sleep-deprived because they’re making incorrect assumptions about each other.
I know it’s easy to try to turn things into a Mom vs. Dad War when you read a headline that says “For New Parents, Dad May Be The One Missing The Most Sleep,” but, that’s just another evil little way that sleep deprivation is trying to get parents to snipe at each other.
Yes, sometimes dad will get less sleep, and, yes, many times, mom will TOTALLY win the “who’s more tired” award, but keeping score like that is one sure way to make sure that your time with your newborn will be completely miserable.
Your takeaway from The Informed Parent’s new sleep data should be that honesty, communication, and empathy are all absolutely vital when it comes to surviving your first few months with a newborn. You need to be able to speak up and say, “Oh my god, I am so freakin’ tired” and you need to be able to listen when your partner says the same thing back to you.
Remember — you’re on the same team. Your common enemy is sleep deprivation. And maybe the baby, depending on how well (or not well) they sleep too.