Why New Moms Are Not Getting Enough Sleep

Study Identifies Factors That Keep New Mothers From Getting the Sleep They Need

    • December 12, 2012

Princeton, N.J.—Getting a good night’s sleep is difficult for most new moms. But it may be especially so for lower income mothers, according to a new study from researchers at the College of Nursing at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Sleep deprivation leads to depression and increased problems in personal relationships. It can also harm a woman’s health and decrease her productivity, costing society billions of dollars. While new lower income mothers have more difficulty getting adequate sleep, the study also suggests that many of the factors that prevent them from sleeping may be easily overcome.

The study was published in the current issue of the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing and was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholars program and the National Institute of Nursing Research. The primary investigator was Jennifer Doering, PhD, RN, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, College of Nursing.

The study identified several causes of sleep deprivation, the most prevalent of which is bed sharing. The research team found that bed sharing was common among lower income women who are new moms. Two weeks after giving birth, when asked “who sleeps in bed with you most nights?” nearly two in five (38 percent) mothers reported sleeping with a male partner and one in five (19 percent) slept with their newborn, the study found. About 29 percent of the mothers said they slept with one older child, 8 percent slept with two older children and 25 percent said they slept alone. In sleep diaries that were kept four and eight weeks after giving birth, approximately 25 percent of mothers reported sharing a bed with the infant. Mothers also reported increased bed sharing with their male partners and a decrease in bed sharing with older children during this same time period.

Doering surveyed 183 new mothers from two Midwestern hospitals who gave birth to healthy infants and who were on Medicaid. Two weeks after giving birth, they completed a survey with  questions about if and how often they smoked, how long they watched television and/or listened to the radio at night, common noises in the sleep environment, where they and their infants slept, and household size. Study participants also kept three days and nights of sleep diaries, recording the number of times they woke up at night, how many caffeinated and/or alcoholic beverages they drank, how much they smoked, if and with whom they shared a bed and the reasons for sleep disruption.

The study found that half (52 percent) of participants slept with the television on part (31 percent) or all of the night (69 percent). More than four in five (85 percent) mothers in the study drank caffeine and one in four (24 percent) smoked.

“In addition to waking from an infant, there were a variety of other factors and behaviors that contributed to a decrease in the quantity and quality of sleep,” said Doering. “Some of these variables can indeed be controlled.”

Social workers and health care professionals need to understand the reasons new mothers do not sleep soundly in order to find better ways to help them.

Doering pointed out that many of the barriers they found, such as caffeine, noise and light are fairly easy to address. For lower income women making changes to avoid these potential sleep disruptors may increase the amount of sleep they receive and improve their quality of life.

Two weeks after giving birth, the mothers were asked what sounds routinely awakened them at night. More than half the sleep disruptions were due to the infant. Other common sleep disturbing factors included sounds of other people or pets in the home, and sounds within the building or neighbors. At four and eight weeks after giving birth, the infant was still the most common reason for being awakened. The second most common factor that interfered with sleep were “family and social issues,” which included children or family disrupting sleep, losing sleep due to socializing with friends, conflict with a past partner or the health of a family member. The third most common reason for interrupted sleep was the mother’s health including the common cold, headaches, menstruation or mental stressors, such as depression and anger.

Doering said her research offers a hopeful and practical pathway forward. “With the necessary modifications, sleep deprived mothers could well be on their way to more continuous, sound sleep,” she said.

Doering is an RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar, and was one of only 15 nurse educators across the country selected in 2008 to participate in the program and to receive a three-year $350,000 grant to conduct research. The goal of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholars program is to develop the next generation of national leaders in academic nursing through career development awards for outstanding junior nursing faculty. The program aims to strengthen the academic productivity and overall excellence of nursing schools by providing mentorship, leadership training, and salary and research support to young faculty. It is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and administered through the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. It is directed by Jacquelyn Campbell, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., who is the Anna D. Wolf chair and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. The program is now in its fifth year. To learn more, visit www.nursefacultyscholars.org.

Read the study.

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Christine Clayton | RWJF | media@rwjf.org | (609) 627-5937
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About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 

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