Here's another reason to take a minute to appreciate everything your mom's sacrificed for you this Mother's Day: Her sleep.
Not that anyone who’s paced the hallway trying to sooth a crying infant needs proof, but several studies have documented that new parents and parents of young children miss out on a whole lot of sleep.
Now, a new population-level research in Australian quantified just how much sleep working Aussie parents are missing out on, compared to their colleagues without children. The results of the survey indicated that fathers of young kids are missing out on one to four hours of sleep each week, while mothers of young kids are missing out on three to nine hours of sleep each week.
Many parents are sleeping less than the 49 hours per week recommended by the National Sleep Foundation guidelines, said the report’s co-author Francisco Perales, a research fellow at the Institute for Social Science Research at The University of Queensland in Australia.
"The situation was particularly alarming for mothers and fathers of two or three young children who incur a weekly sleep debt of two to seven hours," he told HuffPost.
Also important was the finding that parents’ -- and particularly mothers’ -- sleep only started to recover (both quantity of sleep and quality of sleep) around the time the youngest child turned four, Perales said. “Others would argue that it is the woman’s biological imperative to breastfeed that is to blame. … But we find that the gaps persist when children are ages when they are not typically breastfed.”
Sleep quality is worse for all parents, but especially bad among moms
The researchers used a national survey that collected data on household, income, job, ethnicity and marital status from a representative sample of the Australian population that included 10,706 individuals ages 20 to 55. The individuals were also asked how many total hours they slept in a typical workweek (including naps), as well as on weekends. They were asked to rank overall sleep in the last month as very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad.
The survey results showed that on average the men and women without children slept 50 and 51 hours a week, respectively, while weekly sleep for fathers and mothers of one child on average was 49 hours and 48 hours. For fathers and mothers of two children, weekly sleep decreased to 47.5 and 45 hours, respectively; and weekly sleep decreased further for fathers and mothers of three children to 46 and 42 hours respectively.
These findings are averages that controlled for employment status and other confounding variables from the survey results.
The data also showed that sleep quality decreased for fathers and mothers the more children they had; and sleep quality was consistently worse for women compared with men. And the findings showed hours of sleep loss and sleep quality followed the same patterns for single parents, but were even more severe.
Earlier studies have suggested similar disparities among parents compared to adults without children. An analysis of a large, national survey of U.S. adults had previously found that parents of children 2 years old or younger were 35 percent more likely to sleep five hours or less compared with adults who were not parents.
The Australian survey findings are important because the study is one of the first and largest of its kind to quantify how much sleep was lost and the difference that gender made, Perales said.
Unequal sleep may be tied to other gender inequalities
Previous findings from Perales and his colleagues suggest there is still an unequal distribution of housework among men and women, which Perales said may contribute to why moms tended to get less sleep than dads. “We believe that mothers do the bulk of the overnight care work because in Australian society there is still an overarching perception that caring for young kids or doing housework is a ‘woman’s duty.’”
“Women’s disadvantage in sleep may compound with their disadvantage in other life domains, including paid employment and work within the home.”
In addition to the health concerns of these findings -- given that sleep deprivation is linked to increased risk of obesity, stroke, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers -- the disparity between mothers’ and fathers’ sleep is also concerning, Perales said. “Women’s disadvantage in sleep may compound with their disadvantage in other life domains, including paid employment and work within the home.”
The findings support government initiatives that encourage generous, flexible paid parental leave and employment policies that are flexible with parents working away from home. And he added that the policies should extend to both men and women to be most effective.
“It is important that any such policy extends to fathers as well as mothers, both because they suffer from sleep debt themselves and because their presence in the home could help mothers find the time to sleep,” Perales said.