It's Official: Working Moms Do Far More Wake-Up Duty Than Dads

Sometimes I get peeved when I see my tax money funding federal research that tells us things we already know. But once in a while, it gives me great gratification to see the imprimatur of official science stamped onto a well-known phenomenon. Such as, for example, that even when mothers work outside the home, they tend to be the ones who get up when the baby cries or the toddler demands comfort in the middle of the night. And that therefore, they tend to get extra-exhausted just as life is asking the most of them.

Here's the report from the University of Michigan, on a federally funded study soon to appear in the journal Social Forces:

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Working mothers are two-and-a-half times as likely as working fathers to interrupt their sleep to take care of others.

That is the finding of a University of Michigan study providing the first known nationally representative data documenting substantial gender differences in getting up at night, mainly with babies and small children.

And 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 sociologist Sarah Burgard, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). "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."

Let me translate: It's awfully hard to get ahead when you can barely drag yourself through the day.

Burglund's data came from analyzing the time diaries of about 20,000 working parents between 2003 and 2007 that were gathered by the U.S. Census. She found:

Among dual-career couples with a child under the age of one, 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 is 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."

Burglund suggests that her findings may influence public health interventions meant to improve sleep. Usually, efforts focus on nightly routines to help people relax, or use of caffeine or alcohol. But, she says, "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."

This program aired on November 17, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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