“How’s your sleep, Dad?” One question can reveal home truths

A simple question asking new dads how they sleep could be the key to identifying a range of risk factors for fathers of newborns.

Written by Pauline Braniff

Up to 17 per cent of new fathers experience common mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, stress and adjustment disorders, which pose a risk for themselves, the mental health of their baby’s mother, relationships with partners and babies, and ultimately their baby’s development.

National research by the Australian Fatherhood Research Consortium, led by Deakin University’s Dr Jacqui Macdonald from the School of Psychology and Dr Karen Wynter from the School of Nursing and Midwifery and the Institute for Health Transformation, examined the link between the sleep new fathers were getting and their mental health.

Dr Macdonald said Australian fathers were not currently screened for mental health problems and asking them about their sleep could be a simple way of identifying fathers at risk.

“A scoping review and analysis of data from 1200 Australian fathers established clear associations between poor sleep patterns among new dads and symptoms of poor mental health,” Dr Macdonald said.

“One single question, ‘how’s your sleep?’ may make it easier to identify fathers most at risk, and they can then be referred for further screening and assistance, strengthening opportunities to support new family wellbeing.”

The researchers say new fathers are often reluctant to shift the focus away from their partners and baby during the pregnancy and postnatal period. Gaps in health-service capacity, cultural norms, lack of confidence among health professionals and lack of appropriate measures for paternal mental health also make it difficult to identify fathers struggling with poor mental health.

“We know from our research that new fathers often feel excluded from healthcare during pregnancy and the postnatal period, and yet they want to be involved, so there is a fantastic opportunity for health professionals to engage them and ask how they are managing with the transition to parenthood,” Dr Macdonald said.

Dr Wynter said other recent research reveals dads became even further removed from antenatal maternity care and newborn healthcare due to COVID-19 restrictions on social distancing and visitor limits.

“Fathers told us they felt isolated through the pregnancy and postnatal periods, as they were often not permitted to accompany their partners to healthcare appointments or had to care for older children during appointments or while their partners were on the postnatal wards,” Dr Wynter said.

“They felt they were missing out on typical (and special) experiences and this sometimes made them feel sad or anxious.

“Acknowledging the role fathers play in a newborn’s life, the support they provide to partners and the importance of bonding with their baby, it is important to check in with new fathers about their mental health and wellbeing. Asking about their sleep may be a non-stigmatising way to start this conversation,” said Dr Wynter.

 

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