Everyone knows that parents lose out on sleep when they have a new baby. For months, you’re a zombie, lucky to clock three hours in a row. After that you limp along, your thoughts constantly consumed by how tired you are, cursing the old pre-baby you for not realizing how good you had it.
But then the situation is supposed to improve, and people around you tend to stop feeling much sympathy for how totally wiped out you are. Yet many parents are still bleary, up several times a night — night after night — for diaper changes, or midnight requests for water, or cuddling, or who knows what.
Now, one study suggests what exhausted moms and dads already know deep in their sad, weary bones: Parents don’t return to the same levels of sleep duration and sleep satisfaction they experienced pre-pregnancy for six looooong years. Yes, six years.
In a new study — a collaboration among researchers with the U.K.’s University of Warwick, the German Institute for Economic Research, and West Virginia University — investigators looked at data from more than 2,500 women and 2,100 men in Germany who reported on their sleep patterns after the birth of their first, second or third child. Their findings were published in the journal Sleep in January.
The initial trajectory of parental slumber was not particularly surprising: Sleep duration and satisfaction for mothers and fathers dropped at childbirth and reached a low point at three months postpartum.
The researchers found moms slept about an hour less postpartum than they had during pregnancy, while dads reportedly lost about 15 minutes a night.
(We’ll just pause here to note that unlike the United States, Germany offers women paid maternity leave and up to 36 months of post-birth job protection, depending on their circumstances.)
In any case, the parents’ sleep did not fully recover for about six years pretty much across the board.
In less shocking news, the negative effects of parenthood on sleep quality and duration were far more pronounced in mothers than in fathers ― which the researchers hypothesized is because women in developed countries, including Germany, still take on more of the childrearing and household labor, even if they work outside the home.
The researchers also found that women who breastfed their babies reported slightly higher levels of sleep loss and sleep dissatisfaction. (The study did not distinguish between families in which babies were fed breast milk exclusively and those in which breast milk was supplemented with formula.)
Factors other than gender had less effect. Sleep quantity and satisfaction decreased regardless of parents’ age, income or marital status — suggesting that sleep disruptions are not necessarily mitigated by socioeconomic circumstances.
“Wealthier parents, parents who are older, and mothers who live with a partner are equally vulnerable to the sleep impairing effects of pregnancy and childbirth as are less wealthy, younger, and single counterparts,” the researchers wrote.
This study is not the first to look at sleep loss in new parents: Prior research has documented how fragmented sleep can become after the birth of a new baby and has drawn a clear line between sleep deprivation and postpartum mental health problems. But the researchers behind the latest study contend that it’s really the first to look at the course of individuals’ sleep trajectories over the first few years of parenthood.
Of course, how other parents view these findings will have a lot to do with their own experiences.
“Only six years of disrupted sleep seems low!” Conner Herman, founder of the infant and toddler sleep consultancy Dream Team Baby, told HuffPost. “Even so, this study highlights the fact that parenthood undoubtedly compromises sleep, which means it is even more important to identify and eliminate unnecessary nighttime sleep disruptions.”
Herman doesn’t have any easy answers for this, but she does recommend that parents put their kids to bed early and make sure they learn to fall asleep on their own.
As every weary parent knows, that’s much easier said than done.