Parents face six years of disrupted sleep - and dads are way better off

We knew it!

A new study from the University of Warwick has confirmed what every mother already knows, that a newborn baby disrupts a mother’s sleep more than a father’s. The surprising results were that a mother’s sleep was affected up until 6 years after their first child was born. On average, for the first three months, a mother loses just over 1 hour of sleep every night, while the father loses only 15 minutes.

The researchers studied sleep in 4,659 parents who had a child between 2008 and 2015. The mothers also lost about 40 minutes of sleep a night in the year after a baby arrived, then drops to a loss of 15 minutes every night. This was compared with pre-pregnancy levels regardless of whether it was their first or a subsequent child. Mothers who breastfed lost more sleep than those who bottle fed.

Household wealth and whether the parents were together or not made no differences to the results. The participants surveyed were from Germany, but also reflect sleep patterns of parents in Australia.

The first three months are especially tough for breastfeeding mothers.

Carly Travers from Sydney has two girls, Charlotte aged 6 and April aged 11 months. Travers considers herself quite lucky with her sleep and acknowledges that her husband gets out of bed and helps in the night when needed.

“Before the girls were born, I was a good sleeper. I could pump out at least eight to nine hours,” says Travers. Like many mothers, Travers had ten months maternity leave with each girl, so she was the main caregiver and was the one who tended to them in the middle of the night. Like the results of the research, the first three months was when she lost the most sleep.

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“At three months, Charlotte was waking one or two times a night for feeding,” she says, “I probably dropped down to five or six hours (of sleep).” Her husband’s sleep was less during this period, as the crying and Travers' walking around woke him up. “I probably wasn’t too quiet,” she says. Since that period, her sleeping improved as the girls slept more soundly.

Travers isn’t surprised that a mother’s sleep is affected up until the first child is 6 years old. “They have a lot of sickness and that disturbs them through the night. Bed wetting and other things wake them, so you have to get up,” she says. “Even if they cough, it wakes you up, as a parent you think, do I need to give her a drink of water? Is she going to have a coughing fit? A lot of the time you wake yourself up with worry, so you have to get up and check on them.”

Sick children can be a source of worry and sleep loss in parents in the early years.

Travers didn’t agree that her husband’s sleep is still affected. The researchers found that for the whole of the 6 years, the father’s sleep was less by 15 minutes each night. “He only wakes if I’m up,” she says, “15 minutes really isn’t that much, it could be them just getting comfortable after waking up.”

The researchers had a large sample size of parents, over 4000, which makes the results more reliable, but they only met with the parents once a year. Most parents would agree that mothers lose the most sleep with a very young baby, and still wake when a young child makes noises in the middle of the night, but it doesn’t reflect that each child is different.

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Travers sees the limitations of the survey. “Some kids are really good at sleeping during the day and not at night. There are a lot of different variables, such as how many kids you have and if they sleep in the same room can make a difference as well.” Travers can have good and bad night’s sleep, but she knows disrupted sleep won’t last forever.