New Parents May Face Up to Six Years of Disrupted Sleep

A new study has found that sleep deprivation doesn’t end once babies start sleeping through the night

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It’s no secret that parents of new babies don’t get much sleep: infants have a wonky internal clock and frequent feeding needs, meaning that their moms and dads have to be available at all hours of the day and night. But as George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo, an expansive new study has found that sleep deprivation may continue long after little ones come home from the hospital, with parents reporting less sleep and poorer sleep quality up to six years after the birth of their first child.

Published in the journal Sleep, the study drew on data collected between 2008 and 2015 by the German Socio-Economic Panel, an ongoing study of private households in the country. The participants—2,541 women and 2,118 men—reported the births of a first, second or third child during the study period. To track sleep patterns over time, parents were asked during annual interviews to rate their sleep satisfaction on a scale between 0 and 10. They were also asked how many hours they sleep during an average working week day and an average weekend day.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that sleep satisfaction and duration among women decreased sharply after childbirth. New moms’ rating of their sleep quality dropped by 1.53 points on the assessment scale. They also reported getting 41 minutes less sleep after the birth of their first child, and 39 and 44 minutes less sleep after the births of their second and third children, respectively. Dads were also sleeping less, though the drop wasn’t as marked as it was among moms; they reported decreases in sleep duration of 14, 9 and 12 minutes after the births of their first, second and third children. Breastfeeding was linked with slight decreases in sleep satisfaction and duration among mothers.

When researchers took a closer look at the data, they found that sleep deprivation reached its peak in the three months after a baby was born. Between the third trimester of pregnancy and the first three months postpartum, sleep duration was 87 minutes shorter in women and 27 minutes shorter in men.

“It is possible that children’s increased fussing and crying during the first 3 months after birth, along with their dependence on frequent nocturnal feedings and other caretaking, are important reasons for parental sleep disturbance after childbirth,” the study authors note. “Apart from infant crying and frequent nursing, other potential proximate causes of poor postpartum sleep may involve physical pain following delivery and distress related to the demands of a new role.”

Parents tended to get more sleep after the three month mark, but between four and six years after the birth of their first child, moms and dads still hadn’t bounced back to pre-pregnancy levels of sleep satisfaction and duration. Again, the discrepancy was more pronounced among women, who rated their sleep quality 0.95 scale points lower than they did before their baby arrived, and reported getting 22 minutes less sleep, on average. Four to six years postpartum, dads’ sleep satisfaction was down by 0.64 scale points and their sleep duration was reduced by 14 minutes.

“We didn’t expect to find that,” Sakari Lemola, study co-author and associate professor of psychology at the University of Warwick, tells Nicola Davis of the Guardian. But he notes that there are “certainly many changes in [parents’] responsibilities” that might affect how well they are sleeping. Even kids who sleep through the night get sick and have nightmares, which inevitably means that their parents will get less shut-eye. Parenthood may also come with new worries that inhibit sleep, Lemola adds.

Interestingly, the researchers found that factors like parental age, household income and single versus joint parenting had little influence on how well mothers and fathers were sleeping. But the fact that women are more affected by postpartum sleep deprivation than men is revelatory. “This may be associated with the observation that mothers, including working women, still have more household and child rearing responsibilities and spend more time on these tasks compared with fathers in most industrialized countries including Germany,” the study authors write.

Understanding the nuances of sleep patterns among parents is important because sleep is a vital contributor to overall health. This is especially true of new mothers, since sleep problems have been linked to higher postpartum depression symptoms. The researchers say that the results of their study highlight the importance of giving new parents advice and support on managing sleep. There are things that can be done to mitigate the effects of sleep loss, like ensuring that the parent who will be handling most of the nighttime care gets a chance to rest in the evening.

“Try not to worry about non-essential jobs around the house,” Cathy Finlay, an prenatal teacher with the U.K.’s National Childbirth Trust, adds in an interview with Davis, “and accept help from family and friends when it’s offered.”

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