Summary Sleep deprivation (SD) affects hippocampus-dependent memory formation. Several studies in rodents have shown that brief SD immediately following a mild foot shock impairs consolidation of contextual fear memory as reflected in a reduced behavioural freezing response during re-exposure to the shock context later. In the first part of this study, we examined whether this reduced freezing response is accompanied by an attenuated fear-induced activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. Results show that 6 h of SD immediately following the initial shock results in a diminished adrenal corticosterone (CORT) response upon re-exposure to the shock context the next day. In the second part, we established whether the attenuated freezing response in SD animals is associated with reduced activation of relevant brain areas known to be involved in the retrieval and expression of fear memory. Immunohistochemical analysis of brain slices showed that the normal increase in phosphorylation of the transcription factor 3′,5′-cyclic AMP response-element binding protein (CREB) upon re-exposure to the shock context was reduced in SD animals in the CA1 region of the hippocampus and in the amygdala. In conclusion, brief SD impairs the consolidation of contextual fear memory. Upon re-exposure to the context, this is reflected in a diminished behavioural freezing response, an attenuated HPA axis response and a reduction of the normal increase of phosphorylated CREB expression in the hippocampus and amygdala.