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Postpartum Sleep Deprivation Can Age New Parents

Yawning mother holding sleeping newborn

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study shows that postpartum sleep deprivation can accelerate a mother's biological age.
  • Moms who slept less than seven hours had a biological age increase of three to seven years.
  • While informative, the study should be kept in perspective since most new parents are sleep-deprived.

Not getting enough sleep can make you tired, irritable, and forgetful. But for parents who have just delivered a baby, sleep deprivation may also accelerate the aging process. Research out of UCLA found that a year after giving birth, women who slept less than seven hours per night showed a biological age that was three to seven years older than their chronological age.

Study Details

The study, published in Sleep Health, collected data on 33 expectant mothers, ages 23 to 45. The Los Angeles-based participants were monitored during their pregnancies and into their babies’ first year of life.

Researchers looked at DNA from blood samples and examined their epigenetic patterns. This means they analyzed the codes DNA uses to make proteins. These codes enable researchers to estimate a person’s biological age, as opposed to their chronological age. Researchers also gathered data on the amount of sleep the women received each night.

The study found that women who consistently had less than seven hours for the six months after their baby was born had an older biological age. The study results also suggested that sleep deprivation impacted the moms’ telomeres.

“Telomeres are [protective] sections of DNA located at the end of each of our chromosomes," explains Gwenneth Simmonds, CNM. "As we age, we lose some. Lack of sleep speeds up this process, resulting in a lack of normal functioning ability."

The study findings give important insights on the specific detrimental effects of sleep loss. “This is the first study to link lack of sleep in new moms with a marker of biological aging," explains Judith Carroll, PhD, the study's lead author and an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. "[It] points to a mechanism through which sleep loss could contribute to accelerated aging and early risk for diseases of aging.”

The study also found that for every additional hour of sleep they received, the mothers’ biological ages decreased.

Though the results are intriguing, the study does have some limitations. It is a very small number of participants and not a representative sampling. Additionally, it stopped monitoring the women after the first year of the baby’s life, which can be the most fraught with lack of sleep.

Thus, there is no information on whether the lack of sleep has a long-term impact. It is, however, worth exploring through longer-range studies with a larger group of participants. The findings provide a thought-provoking start.

Does Lack of Sleep Mean You're Getting Older?

While the study results are noteworthy, it’s important not to panic over not getting enough sleep with a new baby. Between feedings, changings, and becoming accustomed to a new member of the household, sleep may not come easy. Some sleep deprivation is to be expected.

Michele Okun, PhD

Sleep loss/deprivation is a physiological and psychological stressor. The effects extend to the stress response which in turn can impact both physical and mental health.

— Michele Okun, PhD

However, an important point the study drives home is how detrimental a lack of sleep can be physically, mentally, and emotionally.

“Sleep loss/deprivation is a physiological and psychological stressor," says Michele Okun, PhD, associate professor of research at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and an author of the study. "The effects extend to the stress response which in turn can impact both physical and mental health. Excess stress hormones—cortisol and adrenaline—can desensitize certain cell receptors. They can dysregulate how we respond to stress and can negatively affect sleep.”

Parents can also be at risk of injuring themselves or someone else when overly tired and may be more inclined to poor judgment. If a parent is already struggling with postpartum depression, anxiety, or emotional stress, not getting enough sleep can make it worse.

Getting Enough Sleep

The magic question is, how do you get more sleep? Experts recommend that new moms get at least seven hours. That can seem impossible if you’re overwhelmed with the responsibilities of a new baby. But there are ways to do it that are realistic and beneficial.

  • Sleep when your baby sleeps. Cleaning and cooking can wait.
  • Let others help. It can be a spouse, friend, older children, or grandparents. When help is offered, take it.
  • Avoid household responsibilities in the early postpartum period. Focus on you and your baby.
  • Don’t let the baby sleep with you in your bed. Not only will you be able to rest without concerns about rolling onto your baby, but keeping your baby out of your bed can reduce the risk of SIDS by up to 50%.

Judith Carroll, PhD

We believe that sleep health is as vital to health as diet and exercise, as it provides an important time for the body to recover and heal from daytime activities.

— Judith Carroll, PhD

Trying to do it all alone can leave you stressed and fail to allow you to get the rest you need. “We believe that sleep health is as vital to health as diet and exercise, as it provides an important time for the body to recover and heal from daytime activities,” Dr. Carroll concludes.

What This Means For You

Experts recommend that new moms get at least seven hours. While this study provides valuable insight into the importance of sleep, be patient with you and your baby in the postpartum period. Consider asking for help, sleeping when your baby sleeps, and forgoing bed sharing to optimize your sleep schedule.

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  1. Carroll JE, Ross KM, Horvath S, et al. Postpartum sleep loss and accelerated epigenetic aging. Sleep Health. 2021;7(3):362-367. doi:10.1016/j.sleh.2021.02.002

  2. Park EM, Meltzer-Brody S, Stickgold R. Poor sleep maintenance and subjective sleep quality are associated with postpartum maternal depression symptom severity. Arch Womens Ment Health. 2013;16:539-547. doi:10.1007/s00737-013-0356-9

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Helping babies sleep safely. Updated September 30, 2020.