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Why New Dads Who Sleep and New Moms Who Exercise End Up Fighting

Healthy habits appear to backfire for on new moms and new dads because couples struggle to be understanding with each other.

A good night sleep and some exercise may not be the secret to happiness, but they certainly help. However, things are different for new parents trying to maintain a healthy marriage. According to a new study, the more new dads sleep and the more new moms exercise, the more likely couples are to fight more and grow apart.

“In general, new parents report higher levels of stress, depression and couple conflict, as well as less sleep, companionship and romance with their partner,” study co-author Mark Feinberg, a Penn State University research professor of health and human development, wrote in a statement. “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 and his colleagues were initially interested in uncovering what habits benefited new parents the most during this stressful period. Sleep and exercise are good for a person’s mental and physical well-being, regardless of gender, under normal conditions. So they started there. However, they found that what new moms and dads experience as parents is anything but typical. People are getting less sleep, having less sex, and generally abandoning any sense of self-care. The result? Perverse incentives driven by relationship tension.

The researchers demonstrated this with data from 143 mothers and 140 fathers with babies under 10 months old solicited during nightly phone interviews over the course of eight days. During the conversations, parents were asked about their sleep and work habits, along with chores and physical activity, as well as about their stress levels, well-being, and how they felt about their relationships with their spouses and children.

Feinberg and his team found that when dads exercised more than usual, they were less likely to argue with their partners, but when moms exercised more than usual, couples were more likely to fight. Sleep seemed to cut across similar gendered lines. Mothers who slept more on average also reported higher levels of well-being, but fathers who got more sleep reported lower well-being and less closeness with their families. Researchers suspect this reflects traditional gender role expectations. Namely, who’s responsible for being the primary breadwinner and who’s responsible for being 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,” Feinberg wrote. “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.”

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All that said, the study authors cannot confidently say that sleep and exercise caused these issues, only that they were strongly correlated with them. Determining causation will require more research. Still, the preliminary findings seem to suggest some clear coping strategies. 

“Some parents are happier or sleep better overall than others, but most parents experience some difficult days and some good days,” Feinberg says. “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.”