Bring up the topic of sleep with a parent of a newborn baby, and you’re likely to receive a deep sigh, a slow shake of the head and a slightly sarcastic comment, such as “Sleep? What’s that?”
With newborns waking up for feedings every few hours, parents are understandably sleep-deprived. Big time. Most dream (when they can) of returning to the full nights of uninterrupted, restful slumber they once enjoyed.
They also cling to the conventional belief that once their baby starts sleeping for longer stretches through the night — typically at around three or four months — their own sleep will finally return to normal.
Unfortunately, that belief may be wishful thinking. A new study has found that the birth of a child not only has a severe, short-term impact on the quantity and quality of the sleep of parents (especially mothers), the effect appears to continue for many years.
“While having children is a major source of joy for most parents, it is possible that increased demands and responsibilities associated with the role as a parent lead to shorter sleep and decreased sleep quality even up to six years after birth of the first child,” said Sakari Lemola, the study’s senior author and a psychologist at the University of Warwick in Great Britain, in a released statement.
“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,” he added.
The study was published Monday in the journal Sleep.
Data from a German survey
For the study, Lemola and his co-authors, which included researchers at the German Institute for Economic Research, used data from a large, ongoing research project that annually surveys German adults about a variety of topics, including health and life satisfaction.
The participants are asked (among many other things) to rate the quality of their sleep on a scale of 0 to 10. They are also asked how much sleep they get in a typical day.
Lemola and his colleagues analyzed the answers to those questions from a demographically representative sample of 2541 women and 2118 men. Each had reported the birth of one or more children between 2008 and 2015.
The average age of the parents at the birth of their first child was 30 for the mothers and 33 for the fathers.
Not unexpectedly, the study found that mothers reported a decline in sleep satisfaction and sleep duration as their pregnancy progressed — a decline that reached its nadir during the first three months after the child’s birth.
At that point, the women were sleeping, on average, about an hour less per night compared to before they became pregnant. They were also reporting an average drop of 1.7 points on the 10-point sleep satisfaction scale.
A similar trend was observed among fathers, although it was much less pronounced. Even during the first three months after their child’s birth, the men lost an average of only about 15 minutes of sleep per night.
Sleep satisfaction increased for mothers and fathers when the baby was 4 to 6 months old. And the women reported regaining an average of about 30 minutes of sleep per night.
But the recovery then stalled. Six years after the birth of their child, mothers were sleeping about 20 minutes less and fathers were sleeping about 15 minutes less per night than before the pregnancy.
The sleep losses were greatest among first-time parents and in the first half of the baby’s first year, among breastfeeding mothers.
The researchers also found that higher family income and having two parents in the home did not appear to affect these changes in sleep after childbirth.
A few caveats
The study has some major limitations, particularly the fact that the survey was conducted only once a year and that the information about how long the parents were sleeping each night was self-reported by them. They may have thought they were sleeping less (or more) than they actually were.
Also, the study involved only German parents. The findings, therefore, may not be applicable to parents here in the United States, particularly given the generous paid parental leave that German parents — both mothers and fathers — receive.
After all, parents are likely to get more sleep with a newborn in the house when they don’t have to get up in the morning to get to work.
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on Sleep’s website, but the full paper is behind a paywall.