Study Tallies Just How Much Sleep New Parents Are Missing

We know sleep is critical to our overall health. We can’t live without it. Yet many of us don’t get enough sleep to fulfill our bodies’ needs. And that’s especially true for new parents.

A new study examined sleep duration and sleep satisfaction in mothers and fathers after the birth of a child. Plus, it tallied how long it took for their sleep to return to normal. And the results might have you yawning in sympathy. Here’s what the study found — as well as some tips for dealing with sleep loss.

What sleep loss does to the body

Sleep needs differ among age groups and fluctuate based on a person’s individual health and lifestyle. Several factors — including medical conditions, physical activity level, use of electronics and stimulants (such as coffee) and stress — can influence the quantity and quality of our sleep. Still, the National Sleep Foundation has put together general guidelines based on research and expert opinions for how much sleep every age group needs. Here’s what it recommends:

  • 0 to 3 months: 14 to 17 hours
  • 4 to 11 months: 12 to 15 hours
  • 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours
  • 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours
  • 6 to 13 years: 9 to 11 hours
  • 14 to 17 years: 8 to 10 hours
  • 18 to 64 years: 7 to 9 hours
  • 65 years and older: 7 to 8 hours

If your typical time asleep falls far below your age group’s range, it likely means you’re not getting enough shut-eye — though, again, each person’s optimal amount varies and largely is based on what makes you feel best. But when you consistently experience sleep loss, it can have some serious effects on your body. “During sleep, your body heals itself and restores its chemical balance,” Healthline says. “Your brain forges new connections and helps memory retention. Without enough sleep, your brain and body systems won’t function normally.”

According to Cleveland Clinic, a short-term lack of sleep can reduce your alertness and affect your ability to form memories and process information. It also might make you more anxious or moody, which can cause tension in relationships or at work. And it might generally impact your quality of life. “You may become less likely to participate in normal daily activities or to exercise,” Cleveland Clinic says. Over the long term, sleep loss might lead you to develop health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Clearly, sleep loss can be serious business. So just how at risk are new parents? Here’s what the study says.

New parents and sleep loss

Mother holding newborn baby in her armsCredit: kieferpix/Getty Images

The new study, published in the journal Sleep, analyzed sleep satisfaction and duration in women and men from before they got pregnant through the postpartum period. Researchers from the University of Warwick, along with the German Institute for Economic Research and West Virginia University, tracked the sleep in 4,659 parents (2,541 women and 2,118 men) who had a child between 2008 and 2015. The parents reported on their sleep quality and quantity during annual interviews.

The researchers found that sleep satisfaction and duration dramatically declined after childbirth and reached their lowest points sometime during the first three postpartum months. Mothers experienced much sharper declines, sleeping about one fewer hour on average compared to their sleep duration from before their pregnancy. Fathers only reported losing about 15 minutes of sleep compared to pre-pregnancy. And during those first three months, mothers reported a loss of an average 1.81 points (on a 10-point scale) in sleep satisfaction versus the loss of an average 0.37 points in fathers.

“Women tend to experience more sleep disruption than men after the birth of a child reflecting that mothers are still more often in the role of the primary caregiver than fathers,” study author Sakari Lemola said in a news release.

But here’s the kicker. “In both women and men, sleep satisfaction and duration did not fully recover for up to 6 years after the birth of their first child,” according to the study. And that was after the effects of any subsequent children were taken into account. Even when their firstborns were 4 to 6 years old, mothers still reported sleeping an average of 20 minutes fewer than their pre-pregnancy sleep duration versus 15 fewer minutes in fathers. And the mothers still had lower sleep satisfaction scores than the fathers.

First-time parents experienced more pronounced losses to their sleep duration and satisfaction — though one could say that parents of multiple children already had lower expectations for their sleep, thanks to the lingering impact of their first child. Plus, mothers who breastfed reported more sleep loss compared to those who bottle-fed. But interestingly, several socioeconomic factors didn’t seem to play much of a role. “Parental age, household income, and dual vs. single parenting were unrelated, or only very weakly related, to improved sleep,” according to the study.

So what’s a new parent — or anyone else experiencing sleep loss — to do?

How to combat sleep loss

woman sleeping wearing eye maskCredit: Vera_Petrunina/Getty Images

It’s not always easy to get enough sleep, thanks to the demands of life (or caring for another life). But it’s critical to counter the effects of sleep loss before they become problematic. “Too often we regard sleep as an indulgence or luxury,” Harvard Medical School says. “Rather, we should recognize that adequate sleep is just as important for health as diet and exercise are.”

The National Sleep Foundation offers these tips to help you improve your sleep quality and quantity:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, and create a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Exercise every day.
  • Set up your bedroom to be the ultimate sleeping environment — block light and sound, make sure you find your bed comfortable, etc.
  • Limit alcohol, caffeine, large meals, strenuous exercise and the use of electronics before bed, as they can impair your sleep.
  • Track your sleep using a diary, app or wearable device, and share the results with your doctor to rule out any medical issues that might be affecting your sleep.

Some of these tips certainly aren’t easy to accomplish as a new parent, but they still can be goals. And if you’re planning to have kids, cross your fingers that your first child is a good sleeper.

Main image credit: FatCamera/Getty Images

26 comments

Chad A
Chad A4 months ago

Thank you.

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Clare O
Clare O'Beara4 months ago

th

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohn4 months ago

Noted

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Sandra V
Sandra V4 months ago

Thanks

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Sandra V
Sandra V4 months ago

Thanks

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Anne M
Anne M4 months ago

Never was a parent,, couldn't have handled it... - I have a lot of respect for all parents; they sacrifice a lot,, when bringing children into the world.. xo

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Wesley S
Wesley Struebing4 months ago

How about 18 years-worth? (grins - it has been worth every minute of sleep-deprivation my wife and I suffered. I am so proud of oour kids!)

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Yvonne T
Yvonne T4 months ago

I love sleeping...my bed is a holy place :-)

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Heather B
Heather B4 months ago

Um babies have been keeping parents up at night forever.so what is the answer? Drug them? Not have them? Or train them like puppies so they sleep the night? That is something that comes with the terriotory. stop whining and focus on the upside.

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hELEN h
hELEN h4 months ago

tyfs

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