Sleep and Exercise Affect New Moms Differently Than New Dads

Updated: February 12, 2020
Although both mom and dad may be craving sleep and time to exercise, a new research study shows that sleep and exercise affect new moms differently than new dads.
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Sleep and exercise are probably two of the top things new moms and new dads wish they had time for. Of course, their focus is on their beautiful new baby, but that baby probably has them running on empty and getting very little sleep and time for themselves. Although both mom and dad may be craving sleep and time to exercise, a new research study shows that sleep and exercise affect new moms differently than new dads.

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As you might imagine, research found that getting more exercise and sleep was linked with a better sense of well-being for both moms and dads. So how does this affect mothers and fathers differently? Dads who slept more than other dads actually had a lower sense of well-being. They also reported feeling less close with both their partner and baby. Interestingly, on days when moms exercised more than usual, there was a higher chance that they would have an argument with their partner.

What is really going on in this study then? Why does sleep and exercise affect new moms and dads differently? It may be 2019, but traditional gender roles and expectations are still at play and can subconsciously influence even the most evolved and aware men and women. When systems of certain expectations for gender roles have been in existence for centuries, they are not so easily erased no matter how much we may work to change that.

How Sleep Impacts New Moms and Dads

how sleep impacts new moms and dads

Let’s look at the sleep factor first. The research article states, “[F]athers 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.” If we go back to traditional roles and expectations, moms have generally been the ones to be able to get by on less sleep. They wake when the baby wakes, feed the baby throughout the night, and feel in tune to every breath their baby takes. That motherly instinct often keeps them from engaging in deeper levels of sleep as well.

If moms actually get the chance to sleep more than usual, of course, they would report a greater sense of well-being because they are in desperate need of more sleep. Getting some extra sleep would probably be the number one wish for moms of children of all ages. In general, moms wear many hats. Whether they are working both inside and outside of the home or not, mothering may be the most diversified and demanding job of any in the world. The stress that comes from wearing so many hats - and hats that are tied to emotions and deep feelings rather than just thought processes or physical actions as many jobs require - can lead to an even greater level of exhaustion. This can make the need for extra sleep even more necessary for moms.

In contrast, why would men report less overall well-being and closeness with their partner and children with extra sleep then? Typically, men are not waking to feed and tend to babies throughout the night as much as women. With less interrupted sleep, they may not have as great of a need for sleep as women. This means that extra sleep may just be extra sleep for men, not sleep that is actually desperately needed. That extra time away from a partner and child may cut into the few waking hours they have outside of a work day outside of the home to spend with family. Not getting that essential time with their partner and baby to bond may greatly affect feelings of closeness with family. Although post-pregnancy hormones don’t always feel like a gift for women who become moms through labor and delivery, those hormones do serve as part of a physical bond with the baby, and they are hormones that a father does not get to rely on.

How Exercise Impacts New Moms and Dads

how exercise impacts new moms and dads

As for the exercise factor, why would there be a higher chance of partners arguing on a day when moms take extra time for exercise? Again, if we make the argument that traditional gender roles and expectations still affect the dynamics of a household in 2019, we might see resentment arising from fathers who did not expect extra childcare duties on top of the importance of what they already see themselves doing as a provider of the family (even if mothers are also financial providers). If they were raised in a household where their father did not get very involved with diapers and feeding and playtime, this may bring up triggering feelings for new fathers. 

For moms who have endorphins flowing after some extra exercise, they may feel less able to tolerate a dad not going about childcare in the exact same way that they do. A bottle that doesn’t get finished, a diaper that is a little saggy, or a mess left on the kitchen counter may trigger feelings in a mom of why she always has to be the one to get things done in the home in the “right” way. When childcare and household care feel like mom’s domain, she can feel protective of making sure things go the way she likes them to.

New parents may be living out a dream come true in many cases, but they are also in one of the most stressful times of their lives. This is also an extremely important time for their babies developmentally and physically. Research studies like this one are essential to understanding family needs and how families can be helped. There is also a need to consider families outside of the stereotypical norm. We are very far from a time when families consisted of a man, woman, and child. Families are built from a spectrum of genders and parents that impact a baby’s life that range in number from one to multiple since blended families of all kinds are very common. Additionally, no matter how studies are conducted, they will always carry the burden of contending with stereotypes and longtime societal structures. Sleep and exercise are extremely important to our well-being. We will have to look forward to many more of studies like this one to truly understand all that new parents contend with though as they form and grow as new families.

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