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April 30, 2019

New moms need sleep, dads need exercise to thrive, Penn State study finds

Parenting Infants
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In the early days of parenthood, moms and dads may be affected differently by their crunched sleep and exercise habits, with differing needs in order to best support healthy family dynamics, according to new research from Penn State University.

Findings from a recent study, published this month in the "Monographs of the Society for Research In Child Development," show that sleep is more essential for mothers and exercise is more vital for fathers facing the daily stresses of infant care.

Led by health and human development expert Mark Feinberg, the study looked at data from 143 mothers and 140 fathers collected 10 months after their children's births. During eight-day stretches, each parent was interviewed separately every night to gather information about their sleep patterns, exercise routine and perceived well-being in the family unit.

Notably, mothers who slept more on average than other mothers reported greater well-being, while fathers who slept more on average than other fathers reported lower well-being. These men also displayed less closeness with their partner and child.

On days when fathers exercised more than usual, the likelihood of an argument between the couple dropped. The opposite was true on days when mothers exercised more than usual — there was a higher chance of an argument, the study found.

"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 child care — leading to arguments," Feinberg said. "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."

The goal of the study was to take a more day-to-day look at how changes in stressful and replenishing factors can help parents function better individually and together.

"In general, new parents report higher levels of stress, depression and couple conflict, as well as less sleep, companionship and romance with their partner," Feinberg said. "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."

The researchers suggested that new parents consider tracking their sleep and physical activity with smartphone apps to gain a stronger grasp on how these factors may be impacting their energy and mood.

Rather than go for a complete behavioral overhaul, Feinberg said many parents simply to need to make conscious adjustments in order to see improvements.

"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," Feinberg said. "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."

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