Can Taking Paternity Leave Improve Dads’ Sleep?

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Written by Zara Abrams

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At a Glance

  • Male parents who take parental leave average 18 minutes more sleep each night than those who don’t take leave, according to a survey.
  • Fathers are 8.9% less likely to take parental leave than mothers, with 84.8% doing so.
  • Male parents average 6.8 weeks of parental leave, compared to 7.3 weeks for female parents.
  • Dads who take a longer-than-average leave sleep 33 minutes longer than those with shorter leaves.
  • Fathers who took a fully paid paternity leave average 26 minutes more sleep after their leave than those whose leave was at least partially unpaid.
  • Male parents who say their paternity leave was inadequate are 3.5 times more likely to report poor sleep quality than those with adequate leave.

It took Paul Sullivan and his wife six months to find a rhythm when their second daughter was born.

“It was very tough,” says Sullivan, 50, a Connecticut author and journalist who has since founded a community-driven support platform for fathers in 2021 called the Company of Dads. “I was trying to write my second book, and I essentially had to rewrite the whole thing because I was so sleep-deprived.” 

Research shows that parents may sleep worse with a newborn in the house. They get less sleep and wake up more throughout the night, especially in the baby’s first month. Studies also have shown that female parents report more sleep disruptions, but new dads do suffer in the sleep department.

One thing that helps: taking paternity leave. Fathers who take paternity leave average 18 more minutes of sleep each night than those who don’t take leave, according to an April 2023 Sleep Doctor survey of employed U.S. adults who were parents or guardians of a child born or adopted in the past three years. Male parents who take leave are also more likely to rate their sleep quality as excellent or above average compared to those who didn’t take leave. 

“Time at home can allow fathers to gain confidence in their parenting abilities, to learn what to do, and to practice co-parenting.” — Richard Petts, Ball State University

But male parents are 8.9% less likely than female parents to take leave. And those who do tend to take less time off, the survey found. While moms took an average leave of 7.3 weeks, dads took 6.8 weeks off. 

Although the number of men taking parental leave has tripled since 2018, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis of census data, the survey findings do beg the question: Why aren’t more new dads taking leave, especially considering the sleep benefits? 

How Does Lack of Sleep Affect New Dads?

Waking up at night is common, with research stating that 23% adults or more do it nightly. It’s worse for new parents, with 94.9% of survey respondents saying they wake up at least once a night. And when disruptions lead to parents not getting enough sleep, it can affect the entire family. 

“You’re already under a lot of stress as a new parent, and that just becomes exacerbated when you don’t have enough sleep,” says Richard Petts, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Ball State University whose research focuses on parental leave and fatherhood.

Sleep-deprived fathers may struggle to stay focused and organized. After his second child was born, Dr. Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., of The Sleep Doctor, says he was so exhausted that he went to the linen closet, instead of the refrigerator, looking for breast milk.

His advice? “Sleep when the baby sleeps. Don’t worry about the dishes or the new deck, especially when you have a newborn in the house,” Dr. Breus says. 

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Battling new-parent fogginess may be more pronounced for males, according to the survey. Male parents were 137.1% more likely to turn to prescription sleep aids or medication during or after their parental leave than females. They were also 62.4% more likely to use over-the-counter sleep supplements and 9.2% more likely to seek professional or medical help for their sleep issues.

Sleep issues also can increase relationship conflict, making it harder to co-parent, Petts says.

“If you’re sleep-deprived, stressed, and over-burdened, that has the potential to harm your relationship with your partner,” Petts says. 

What Are the Benefits of Paternity Leave?

For single parents or those in relationships, an absence from work to focus on parenting can allow for some opportunity to reset and recharge, as well as getting used to new or added responsibility. Parental leave is linked with smoother recovery for those who gave birth and better mental health and relationships

Dads who take leave also have better relationships with their kids and are less likely to get divorced, according to Petts’ research. 

“Time at home can allow fathers to gain confidence in their parenting abilities, to learn what to do, and to practice co-parenting,” Petts says. 

“You’re already under a lot of stress as a new parent, and that just becomes exacerbated when you don’t sleep.” — Richard Petts, Ball State University

For the 84.8% of dads who take parental leave, compared to 93.1% of mothers, this also may translate into more sleep. According to the survey, dads average 42 minutes more sleep each night during their leave, with 56.6% saying they got more sleep during that time. Some 37.3% rated their sleep quality as excellent or above average, 22.7% higher than male parents who did not take a leave.

Why Aren’t More Dads Taking Time Off?

There’s a catch, however. Only 28% of workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave, according to a 2021 Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult poll. Job security plays a big role. Where you live matters, too. 

Of all survey respondents, nearly half (49.9%) of dads took paid leave, with 13% taking unpaid leave and 22.4% taking mixed paid and unpaid paternity leave. 

There also may be a correlation between the length of leave and sleep. Male parents whose leaves were longer than average sleep 33 minutes longer each night than those with shorter-than-average leave. They also sleep 48 minutes longer than those whose leave was two weeks or less. 

Can Paternity Leave Improve New Dads' Sleep?

Male parents who took a fully paid paternity leave slept 26 minutes longer after their leave than those who took at least some unpaid time. 

But is it enough? When asked if their leave was adequate, 59.1% of fathers said yes, but more than one-quarter (26.3%) of dads who took leave say it was too short.

Sean Dagony-Clark, a 46-year-old educator in New York, says he wishes he took more than the three weeks of paid leave his employer provided after his wife gave birth to his children, now ages 8 and 12. He says he spent that time focusing on supporting his wife’s sleep hygiene rather than his own.

“I wanted to allow her to sleep as much as possible, so I was typically the one getting up to change diapers in the middle of the night,” he says. “In terms of how much sleep I got, it’s hard to say. I remember I did not get much sleep right after the delivery.”

What’s holding dads back? Among fathers like Dagony-Clark who say their leave wasn’t enough, 41.7% say they took the maximum their employer allowed. Many responded that they didn’t want to be replaced (36.7%), could not afford to take more (32%), or feared falling behind (23%) at work.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring employers to provide paid leave, with others taking effect in coming years. Our survey found that dads in those states are 11.3% more likely to take time off than those in other states. They’re also slightly more likely to have fully paid leave (51.4% versus 49.9%) and take more time off (7.3 weeks versus 6.7 weeks) than dads in states without parental leave laws.

Petts says that dads with access to generous leave policies often fear taking more time because they don't want to be perceived as less committed to their jobs than other employees.

And taking a shorter-than-average leave may be harming new dads' sleep. Among fathers who say their leave was too short, 27% reported poor sleep quality, compared to just 7.7% of dads who think their leave length was adequate.

Dr. Breus says that gap could be linked to the sense of safety dads feel if their job and income are guaranteed. 

"Sleep is all about safety. Physically, you’re in your most vulnerable position," he says. "If you know that your job and finances are safe, all you have to do is figure out how to parent."

Methodology

The survey commissioned by The Sleep Doctor was conducted on the online survey platform Pollfish on April 17, 2023. Results are from 1,200 survey participants in the United States who were ages 18 and older at the time of the survey, were parents or guardians of at least one child who was born in the past three years, and were employed at the time of the child's birth or adoption. All respondents attested to answering the survey questions truthfully and accurately.

References

About The Author

Zara Abrams

Contributing Writer


Zara is a science writer who specializes in psychology, neuroscience, and health. She has a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science journalism, both from the University of Southern California.

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