Women are more likely than men to give up sleep to care for children and others

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011; 8:22 PM

Call it the real night shift - that noctural period when bleary-eyed adults leave warm beds to tend to the needs of sick kids, elderly parents, an ailing spouse or incontinent pet. So, who takes the night shift: Mom or Dad?


Women are 2 ½ times as likely as men to interrupt their sleep to care for others, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Michigan. And once they're up, women are awake longer: 44 minutes, compared with 30 minutes for men.

"People are getting up for other things, too. We found that men are checking to make sure the door is locked, and especially older men are getting up to use the bathroom. But more women are specifically getting up to care for dependents - that includes feeding, tending to physical or medical care, and especially for young children," says the study's lead researcher, Sarah Burgard, an assistant professor of sociology and epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor.

For the study, which is slated to appear in the journal Social Forces, researchers analyzed data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau via the American Time Use Survey: more than 20,000 time diaries kept by working parents from 2003 to 2007.

Among dual-income couples with a child younger than 1, 32 percent of women reported sleep interruptions on a given 24-hour period, compared with 11 percent of men. For those with children ages 3 to 5, 3 percent of mothers and 1 percent of fathers experienced interrupted sleep. Overall, after controlling the data for differences in work commitment, partnership status and other factors, Burgard said, mothers took "the night shift of caretaking" about 21/2 times as often as fathers.

"Obviously, the child-rearing responsibilities maybe slanted at first due to breast-feeding," Burgard said in an interview. But, she added, "then the responsibilities are never renegotiated."

According to the study, the gender gap was the greatest during the parents' prime childbearing and child-rearing years, their 20s and 30s - which is also the optimal period for earnings and career development. Sleep-deprived individuals do not function well on the job, Burgard said: "Poor sleep quality manifests quickly: You're unable to focus. . . . It's a real limitation."

Previous research into women's lack of sufficient sleep noted problems such as undiagnosed sleep apnea and depression, she said, but this study sheds light on another factor: gender-defined responsibilities.

Whether the woman was the "primary caregiver, primary breadwinner, it didn't matter," says Burgard. Among parents of children younger than 1, 28 percent of women who were the sole earner in the couple reported getting up in the middle of the night to take care of children, compared with 4 percent of men who were the sole breadwinner.

"The primary care responsibilities still belong to females regardless of other obligations," says Burgard.

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