New Mothers Have Problems With Sleep Quality, Not Hours

The popular consensus may be that new mothers do not get enough sleep, but that may be wrong.

A new study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, suggests new mothers may often get a decent amount of sleep in their babies’ first few months, but it is usually not good-quality sleep.

The study, which followed a group of new moms, found that on average, moms got just over 7 hours of sleep per night during their babies’ first four months. That is within what is generally recommended for adults, and is more than what the average American gets, based on past studies.

However, the study also found that the sleep is frequently disrupted, with most new mothers being awake a total of two hours during the night.

The results may not sound surprising, especially to parents. But the study does challenge assumptions about new mothers’ typical sleep patterns, according to lead researcher Dr. Hawley E. Montgomery-Downs, an assistant professor of psychology at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

The assumption has been that most new mothers are sleep-deprived, Montgomery-Downs told Reuters Health.

So the advice on how to combat daytime fatigue has focused on countering sleep deprivation, she said. A popular piece of advice could be for moms to “nap when your baby naps.”

The results of the study, however, suggest that new moms’ highly fragmented sleep is what’s behind their daytime fatigue.

The sleep pattern in new mothers is very similar to what is seen with sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, where people are in bed enough hours each night, but get very little restorative, good-quality sleep.

Sleep occurs in cycles that each last about 90 to 120 minutes. Depending on how often a new mother is waking up, she may get few or no full cycles of sleep during the night, Montgomery-Downs noted, adding that a quick daytime nap is not likely to counter that.

“We need to think about what kinds of strategies can help consolidate sleep” for new moms, she said. One strategy, she suggested, could be for breastfeeding moms to find time to pump milk and store it in bottles so that they do not have to be the ones to always get up with the baby.

And although quick naps do not offer much help, she said that “if you’re one of the lucky parents” whose infants may nap for at least two straight hours, taking that time to sleep could be helpful.

The study involved 74 new mothers who were followed between either the second and 13th week of their infants’ lives, or between the ninth and 16th week. The mothers kept track of their sleep patterns using sleep journals, and also wore a wristwatch-like device called an actigraph that recorded their movements during the night.

Researchers found that the women’s average sleep time was what is typically should be, at 7.2 hours. The problem lied with sleep fragmentation.

Only a few mothers tried napping to countermeasure the lack of full night’s rest. By the third week of their infants’ lives, less than half of the women in the study said they took daytime naps, and among those who did, the average was only twice per week.

Daytime fatigue in new mothers is a real concern for several reasons, according to Montgomery-Downs. One reason is that, in some women, sleep problems and exhaustion may contribute to postpartum depression. Fatigue can also hinder the ability to drive safely and could hurt work performance.

Fragmented sleep and daytime fatigue in new mothers call for reconsideration of maternity work leave in the US, Montgomery-Downs argues. Currently, national policy states that workplaces with more than 50 employees have to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

Many women, Montgomery-Downs noted, may have to go back to work at a time when “they should really be taking care of themselves.”

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