Working mothers are two-and-a-half times as likely as working fathers to interrupt their sleep to take care of others, according to an ISR study providing the first known nationally representative data documenting substantial gender differences in getting up at night, mainly with babies and small children.
Women are not only more likely to get up at night to care for others, their sleep interruptions last longer—an average of 44 minutes for women, compared to about 30 minutes for men. “Interrupted sleep is a burden borne disproportionately by women,” said ISR sociologist Sarah Burgard. “And this burden may not only affect the health and well-being of women, but also contribute to continuing gender inequality in earnings and career advancement.”
The study, published in Social Forces, was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Aging, and the Sloan Foundation. Burgard analyzed time-diary data from approximately 20,000 working parents from 2003 to 2007, drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey. She found that the gender gap in sleep interruptions was greatest during the prime childbearing and child-rearing years of the twenties and thirties.
Among dual-career couples with a child under the age of one, for example, 32 percent of women reported sleep interruptions to take care of the baby, compared with just 11 percent of men. The proportion reporting interrupted sleep declined with the age of the child, with 10 percent of working mothers and 2 percent of working fathers with children ages 1 to 2 reporting sleep interruptions, and just 3 percent of working mothers and 1 percent of working fathers with children ages 3 to 5.
“What’s really surprising,” Burgard said, “is that gender differences in night-time caregiving remain even after adjusting for the employment status, income and education levels of each parent. Among parents of infants who are the sole breadwinner in a couple, for example, 28 percent of women who are the sole breadwinner report getting up at night to take care of their children, compared to just 4 percent of men who are the only earner in the couple.”
“The prime childbearing years are also the time when earnings trajectories are being established,” Burgard says, “and career advancement opportunities could well be foregone if women reduce their paid work time or see their workplace performance affected because of exhaustion. As a result, sleep interruption may represent an under-recognized ‘motherhood penalty’ that influences life chances and well-being.”
The findings also have implications for public health interventions to improve sleep. “Generally, these interventions target individual behaviors, such as the use of alcohol, caffeine or tobacco,” said Burgard. “Or they focus on nightly routines that help people to relax and fall asleep or stay asleep more successfully. But for parents of young children, the best approach might be discussions and negotiations about whose turn it is to get up with the baby tonight.”
- Related link: U-M News Service Press Release