Are You Too Tired to Drive? The Truth About Father Fatigue And How To Survive It

Luke BenedictusBy Luke Benedictus.
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Exhaustion is the inescapable plight of every new dad. Broken nights are unavoidable in those early months as you blearily struggle on while punctuating your sentences with yawns.

But sleep deprivation has repercussions beyond the fact that your caffeine intake has suddenly trebled overnight. A study in the American Journal of Men’s Health conducted by Australian researchers investigated the effects of fatigue on 241 dads with new babies. The men were found to be 36 per cent more likely to have a near-miss at work and 26 per cent more likely to have an accident on the road due to their tiredness.

“People tend to focus on the mother’s fatigue, and the father’s fatigue is a really unspoken piece,” says Dr Sarah Cotton, an organisational psychologist.

She highlights that while fatigue rates in the general working population tend to hover around 20 to 30 per cent, the aforementioned study showed a dramatic spike to 75 per cent for dads of 12-week-old babies. “These are alarming statistics and just touch the surface of the level of fatigue that many fathers are experiencing.”

But exhaustion doesn’t just endanger your physical safety. There’s a proven link between fatigue and depression, Dr Cotton says, with one in 10 new dads succumbing to perinatal anxiety and depression.

“Fatigue can also have a really big impact on relationships and increase partnership conflicts,” she says. “None of us are our best selves when we haven’t slept.”

Despite all this, many dads tend to internalise their struggles and suffer in silence. “I’ve worked with many men whose attitude was: ‘Well, my wife has given birth, she’s breastfeeding. Who am I to whinge about my fatigue?’,” Dr Cotton says.

Sadly, there’s no way to avoid the crushing fatigue that early fatherhood entails. But you can limit the damage.

You’re powerless to control how many times your baby wakes up in the night. What you can do is safeguard the other key factors that contribute to your overall well-being.

“I know self-care sounds really fluffy to a lot of guys,” Dr Cotton says. “But don’t underestimate the power of eating well, drinking water, exercising regularly – these things can make a huge difference to being able to function with those high levels of fatigue.”

That extends to making a real effort to prioritise your sleep. “It’s about having the discipline not to watch that extra Game of Thrones episode,” Dr Cotton says.

Obviously, your partner is doing it just as tough (if not tougher) when it comes to sleep deprivation. But that doesn’t mean you should hide how you’re getting on. “If you’re in a partnership, having those conversations about the team-parenting role is really important,” Dr Cotton says. “Talk it over. I always say choose discomfort over resentment.”

Perhaps you can negotiate alternate lie-ins on the weekend? Or divide and conquer by taking afternoon shifts to look after the baby so that one of you can snatch a quick nap. “It’s worth thinking about how you’re going to set up for success as a family unit.”

Perhaps the most sobering danger of fatigue is how it increases your risk of a car accident. Think hard about your journey management, Dr Cotton suggests. “Drive home a different way home every second night so that your brain isn’t falling into automatic pilot.”

In addition, consider your alternatives to driving, Can you get a lift to work with a colleague or catch public transport? “This sort of common sense stuff can make a big difference,” Dr Cotton says. You might even get to snooze on the train.

Handling the pressures of work on limited sleep isn’t easy. So you’d be crazy not to take advantage of every single resource your workplace has to make those early months more bearable. “Taking your parental leave and making use of your work place flexibility is really important.” Dr Cotton says.

Statistically, new dads are shown to be most exhausted around 12-weeks after the baby’s arrival. “Think a bit creatively about understanding when your fatigue will be at its worst and plan a long weekend or try to take some more leave around then,” Dr Cotton says.

Dr Sarah Cotton is the co-founder of Transitioning Well, a consultancy designed to help navigate life changes in the workplace.