New parents face up to six years of sleep deprivation, study says

Rest is at its worst three months after birth – and mothers suffer more than fathers

Night shift: women lose an hour’s sleep a day after a first child’s birth; men lose 13 minutes. Photograph: JGI/Getty

Starting a family is a well-known way to make a good night’s sleep a distant dream, but new research suggests the parental yawns might go on for six years.

Researchers tracking the sleep of thousands of men and women as their family size increased have found that shut-eye hits a low about three months after birth – with the effect strongest in women.

However, although parents gradually see an improvement in their sleep as their firstborn grows, it seems their night-time rest is never quite the same again.

"We didn't expect to find that, but we believe that there are certainly many changes in the responsibilities you have," Dr Sakari Lemola, one of the authors of the research, at the University of Warwick, says. He adds that although children may stop crying during the night as they age, they may wake up, be sick or have nightmares, and the stress and worries that go with parenthood can also affect parents' sleep.


Mothers  lose about 40 minutes of sleep a night in the year after a baby arrives, regardless of whether it is their first or a subsequent child

Published in the journal Sleep, the study looks at data collected from adults in Germany who were surveyed in face-to-face interviews carried out once a year between 2008 and 2015. Participants were asked to rate their sleep quality on a scale from 0 to 10, and were quizzed on how many hours of sleep they got on a normal weekday and on a normal weekend day.

The researchers have focused on responses from more than 2,500 women and almost 2,200 men who reported the birth of their first, second or third child during the study, with participants followed for up to six years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team finds that women reported a decline in sleep satisfaction in the first year after the birth of a child, dropping 1.7 points on the scale on average for the first child, and just over one point for both the second and third child compared with before their first pregnancy.

The mothers also lose about 40 minutes of sleep a night in the year after a baby arrives compared with prepregnancy levels, regardless of whether it is their first or a subsequent child.

Deeper analysis of data shows the first three months after the birth of a first child are particularly gruelling: women lose just over an hour of sleep compared with before they became pregnant.

Although similar trends are seen for fathers, the effects are less pronounced. Even at three months after their first child’s birth, fathers lose only 13 minutes of sleep.

Sleep deprivation can be draining. Try not to worry about nonessential jobs around the house and accept help from family and friends when it's offered

Strikingly, the team finds the impact of the first child lingers for both parents. Even once the impact of subsequent children is taken into account, women are still relatively sleep deprived, both in terms of quality and quantity, four to six years after their first child’s birth. Overall sleep satisfaction is rated just over one point lower on average, while sleep duration is about 25 minutes less.

By contrast, after the birth of a second child mothers’ sleep recovers to levels of before that pregnancy, and almost bounces back for the third child – findings Lemola puts down to sleep duration and quality being worse to start with because of the impact of the first child. “Your baseline is lower,” he says.

The study has some limitations – not least that it is based on data collected once a year and involves self-reporting; also, some participants dropped out.

Cathy Finlay, an antenatal teacher with the National Childbirth Trust, a UK charity, says there are ways for parents to mitigate the impact of disturbed sleep.

“Sleep deprivation can be physically and emotionally draining. Try not to worry about nonessential jobs around the house and accept help from family and friends when it’s offered,” she says, adding that co-ordinating your own naps with that of the children can help, as can one parent doing evening caring while the other rests ahead of the “night shift”.

But, she adds, parents should take heart. “The sleep disruption can be difficult and exhausting, but bear in mind it won’t last forever.” – Guardian