Wake Up Mum; Gender Differences in Accepting Sleep Interruptions

November 22nd, 2010 by

Oh, the notorious sleepless nights of parenthood.  Combine that with mother’s intuition and it is a wonder new mums get any shut eye at all.  It seems that when it comes to night time cries from baby, mums are more likely to respond.  No offense to dads of course, but new research discovered that even if both parents are working mums are twice as likely to interrupt their sleep to care for others.

The University of Michigan (UM) study was the first to document significant gender differences in waking up at night, particularly to care for small children and babies.  Not only are women more likely to respond to other’s needs at night, but their sleep interruptions are longer averaging about 44 minutes when compared to 30 minutes for dads.

Sociologist and researcher for the UM Institute for Social Research Sarah Burgard led the study that analyzed time-diary data from 20,000 working parents from 2003-2007, as reported to the US Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey.  Prime child bearing and child rearing years of the 20’s and 30’s were where the greatest gender differences in sleep interruption were found.

Taking a look at dual career couples with a child under the age of 1, Burgard discovered that only 11% of men reported sleep interruptions to get up and take care of the baby, which paled in comparison to the 32% of women who reported getting up.  For both mums and dads, sleep interruptions declined with the advancing age of the baby, but the burden of getting up remained greater for mums.  This also remained the case regardless of who was the breadwinner in the family with 28% of the sole breadwinning mums still caring for the children at night with only 4% of men who provided the only family income.

Oddly enough in other related studies, women did tend to get more sleep when compared to men, but only about 15 minutes more which Burgard explains is not nearly enough to compensate for the sleep interruptions.   Burgard also brought up a critical point which is becoming an increasing concern for women these days; that the disproportionate sleep interruption women face does not just affect health and well-being but also may contribute to earning inequality and career advancement.  More and more women these days are both mothers and career women, and the child bearing years are also congruent with the time for career establishment.  The study may not only help future public health sleep interventions, but also can help initiate a necessary conversation between parents: whose turn is it to get up with the baby.

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