It may come as news to new parents but a U.S. study has found that mothers do get enough sleep in their babies’ first few months — it’s just not good quality.
Researchers from West Virginia University in Morgantown followed a group of new mothers and found, on average, the women got just over 7 hours of sleep a night during their babies’ first four months.
That amount is generally what is recommended for adults, and, based on past studies, more than the average American gets.
But the study found that sleep is also frequently disrupted with the women typically being awake for a total of two hours a night which was worrying as sleep problems and exhaustion may contribute to postpartum depression and impact work performance.
Researcher Dr. Hawley E. Montgomery-Downs, an assistant professor of psychology, said the study challenges a central assumption about new mothers’ typical sleep patterns.
She said that the general assumption had been that most new mothers are not getting enough hours of sleep so the advice on how to combat daytime fatigue has focused on countering sleep deprivation, such as nap when your baby naps.
The current results, reported in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology , suggest that new mothers’ highly fragmented sleep is the cause of daytime fatigue.
That sleep pattern, Montgomery-Downs said, is similar to what is seen with certain sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, where people log enough hours in bed, but get little restorative, good-quality sleep.
Sleep occurs in repeated cycles that each last 90 minutes to two hours. Depending on how often a new mother is waking up, she may get few or no full cycles of sleep, Montgomery-Downs noted.
“We need to think about what kinds of strategies can help consolidate sleep” for these mothers, Montgomery-Downs said.
One tactic, she suggested, could be for breastfeeding mothers to find time to pump milk and store it in bottles so that they do not have to be the one to always get up with the baby.
While quick naps might not do much, Montgomery-Downs noted that “if you’re one of the lucky parents” whose infants typically nap for at least two straight hours, taking that time to sleep could be helpful.
The findings are based on 74 new mothers who were followed between either the second and 13th week of their infants’ lives, or between the 9th and 16th week.
The women kept track of their sleep patterns using sleep ‘diaries,’ and also wore a wristwatch-like device called an actigraph that recorded their movements during the night.