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New parents are sometimes shocked to discover how little sleep they get in the first six months after a baby is born.
They might also be discouraged to learn that their sleep patterns might not return to normal until that newborn is ready for kindergarten.
A new study published in the journal Sleep found that both parental sleep satisfaction and sleep duration sharply declined after childbirth, hitting their lowest point when a baby is 3 months old.
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Women’s sleep duration and quality were far more affected than men, whether or not they breastfed their child.
Women lost an average of one hour of sleep nightly compared to what they got prior to pregnancy, while men lost about 15 minutes of sleep per night.
Sakari Lemola, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and a corresponding author of the study, said this may reflect the reality “that mothers are still more often in the role of the primary caregiver than fathers.”
Moreover, “following the sharp decline in sleep satisfaction and duration in the first months postpartum, neither mothers’ nor fathers’ sleep fully recovers to prepregnancy levels up to 6 years after the birth of their first child,” concluded researchers from the German Institute for Economic Research, the University of Warwick, and West Virginia University.
Even four to six years after childbirth, mothers were getting 20 minutes less sleep per night than before they became pregnant, while fathers were still getting 15 minutes less sleep.
“The short-term effects of childbirth on parental sleep is well known. Our study just confirmed these effects,” Lemola told Healthline. “However, it was largely unexpected to find decreased sleep duration and sleep satisfaction six years after birth.”
“The long-term decrease by 20 minutes on average is not a major decrease, but still it can make you more tired,” he added. “We expected that sleep would have normalized at that time.”
Sleep was more affected among first-time parents than among parents with more than one child.
“Each adult should be getting between seven and nine hours of quality sleep per night,” Bill Fish, a certified sleep science coach and co-founder of the website tuck.com, told Healthline. “The problem is that a newborn isn’t quite aware of those recommendations.”
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The findings were based on interviews of 4,659 parents who had a child between 2008 and 2015.
Sleep disruption changes over time
“While having children is a major source of joy for most parents, it is possible that increased demands and responsibilities associated with the role as a parent lead to shorter sleep and decreased sleep quality even up to six years after birth of the first child,” said Lemola.
That’s certainly been the case for Jamie Coelho, a magazine editor based in Rhode Island who has two children — Carter, 5, and Kinsley, 2 — and estimates that she now gets two fewer hours of sleep per night than before she had children.
“I am a working mom and by the time I get everything done that needs to happen each day it’s past 10 p.m., and I really need an hour to relax after what feels like a 16-hour work day,” she told Healthline.
“It’s mentally and physically exhausting preparing for the next day each evening and there’s just not enough time to do everything, so my bedtime gets pushed back further and further,” she said.
Coelho said that while Carter slept through the night by age 1, Kinsley still wakes up crying at night. The parents bring her to their bed to get her back to sleep, but then the issue is that Carter wakes up if the hallway light isn’t on — and the light disturbs Coelho’s sleep even further.
“When you are pregnant it’s hard to sleep anyway,” she said. “It’s like being pregnant prepares you for not sleeping so you ease into it.”
Sabrina Lacle’s two boys, ages 6 and 8, sleep fine now. But the public relations professional from Coral Gables, Florida, says she’s never really gotten back to “normal” sleep.
“I can’t remember the last time I slept through the night completely,” she told Healthline. “At the beginning when they are a newborn you sleep lighter and hear every heavy breath, and then as they got older, for me that never went away even though they do sleep through the night.”
“There is a sense of worry and checking in on them still. Which, of course, is not necessary, but I still do it,” she said.
Lemola said that future research would be required to determine how parents can cope with sleep loss and regain their sleep patterns sooner.
Establishing a sleep routine
Fish recommended that parents establish a sleep routine for themselves as well as their child.
“The human body is a creature of habit no matter your age,” he said. “The goal should be to get your child in bed at the same time each night and start a sleep ritual. If brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, and reading a book is your routine, that’s great, but keep it the same each day. As we build that routine, the child’s body and mind will become accustomed to this plan each day and become easier to get to sleep and get the rest they need.”
As for parents, Fish suggests turning the bedroom into a “sleep sanctuary.”
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“Make your room as cool and as dark as possible, charge your electronics in another room, and remove all clutter,” he said. “This will also help your mind to unwind and get the quality of sleep you need.”
“Having a child while also making your sleep a priority is difficult, but following a couple of those tips will allow you get back on track in much fewer than six years.”
The bottom line
Parents, especially mothers, get significantly less sleep for up to six years after childbirth.
Experts say part of the reason is the disruption caused by young children waking up.
Parents of young children also tend to go to bed later due to all their responsibilities.
Experts recommend a consistent nightly sleep routine for young children.
They also suggest parents turn their bedroom into a “sleep sanctuary,” so they can get the rest they need.
This article first appeared on HealthLine.com