While sleep and exercise are vital to the well being of a new parent, a recent study suggests that the activities affect new moms differently than new dads.
As part of the study, researchers looked at the daily lives of new parents and they found that, in general, adding physical activity and more sleep to their day lead to better personal well-being, a better couple relationship and more closeness with their baby.
However, fathers who slept more on average than other fathers reported lower overall well-being and less closeness with their partner and child. In contrast, mothers who slept more on average than other mothers reported greater well-being.
Additionally, the researchers found that on days when fathers exercised more than usual, there was a lower likelihood of an argument between the couple. But, on days when mothers exercised more than usual, there was a higher chance of an argument.
The team of researchers suggested that these differences may be due to mothers often being seen as the primary caretaker.
“Fathers may resist or feel resentful when mothers spend more time than usual on their own needs such as exercise, leaving fathers to pick up more responsibility for childcare — leading to arguments. But, it’s also possible that the extra time spent with the child is stressful for fathers, leading fathers to be more irritable on such days and leading to more arguments with the partner,” said Mark Feinberg, lead researcher of the study.
The findings – published in the Monographs of the Society for Research In Child Development – were part of a study that examined how factors like exercise, sleep, and different daily stressors affected the day-to-day lives and family relationships of new parents.
According to Feinberg, while early parenthood is stressful for parents both as individuals and as a couple, it is also a vital period of rapid development for the newborn child, making it especially important to understand and support parents’ well-being during this time.
“In general, new parents report higher levels of stress, depression and couple conflict, as well as less sleep, companionship, and romance with their partner. Ironically, it’s also the period when children are most vulnerable when their brains and regulatory systems are rapidly developing to set the stage for their functioning for the rest of their lives, and when they are most dependent on parents for consistent affection and support,” Feinberg explained.
Feinberg stated that looking at how changes in one stressful or replenishing factor are linked to changes in parents’ well-being and relationships from day to day — instead of annually, for example — can give researchers a better understanding on how to help parents achieve better functioning and well-being on more days.
“In past research, we might find that on average, one father sleeps more, is less depressed, and more affectionate with his child than another father. But that doesn’t tell us if enhancing sleep for that father would affect his level of depression or parenting warmth,” said Feinberg.
For the study, the researchers used data from 143 mothers and 140 fathers collected ten months after their child’s birth. The researchers interviewed the mothers and fathers separately by phone every night for eight days to gather data about the previous 24 hours.
The researchers gathered data about time spent sleeping, at work, doing chores and physical activity. They also asked the participants about stress, well-being, and their relationships with their spouse and child.
“Some parents are happier or sleep better overall than others, but most parents experience some difficult days and some good days,” Feinberg said.
“Most parents already have a good place to start from at least on some days, so it’s a matter of figuring out what works on those days and then doing more of that. This would be an easier and maybe more effective approach than thinking that we have to help someone completely change their routines and emotional patterns,” Feinberg explained.