When kids are sick at night, it’s mom (not dad, usually) to the rescue

Long past the days of 2 a.m. feedings, working mothers are still two-and-a-half times more likely than working fathers to get up in the middle of the night to take care of the kids. This is true even among partners who have the same time constraints and responsibilities, according to a University of Michigan study.

“The biological necessity for (women) to be the breastfeeder, if they decide to breastfeed, turns into a pattern of majority responsibility for getting up,” says Dr. Sarah Burgard, an assistant professor and lead author on the study.

So while mothers may willingly take on more responsibility in the early months of a child’s life, Burgard says, it becomes very difficult to renegotiate those nighttime hours, even when the needs could be met by either parent. “Women who earned more than their partners or worked longer hours did not have a reduced burden of caregiving,” she says.

Burgard suggests that new parents can use these findings to have productive conversations about equitable division of the night shift early on. Since the early years of a child’s life often overlap with the prime career-building years, she says, it may be helpful to consider how nighttime interruptions will factor in.

“Discussions of more equitable caregiving may be a real step in the right direction,” she says, explaining that her own friends have found the best strategy is to have a plan for who is on duty, switching off on certain nights. “One partner gets up in the night, while the other takes over in getting up with the child and lets the night-shift parent sleep longer.”

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