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returning to work after having a baby

Study Says New Moms Get Less Sleep Than New Dads

A new study out of the American Academy of Neurology sheds light on new parents’ sleep patterns — and on the obstacles faced by women returning to work after having a baby. Researchers concluded that new mothers’ sleep is impacted far more than fathers’ sleep by the arrival of a new baby. (Granted, the study’s subjects were all US parents, but our assumption is that the results would probably be as skewed, if not more, in an Indian context.)

Almost 3,000 women were surveyed for a variety of lifestyle factors, and the only one that significantly impacted quantity of sleep was the presence of children in the house. For women, each additional child increased her chances of not getting enough sleep by 50%. For men, there was no difference in sleep quantity at all between those who lived with small children and those who didn’t.

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While the results of the study are perhaps not surprising, they help to contextualize the slow leak of women in the workforce after childbirth. We’ve written a lot about the cycle of gender inequality that starts when a baby enters a partnership. Until now, that cycle has usually been expressed in terms of time and money: Women are frequently pulled from the workforce to care for young children. This break from work in turn leads to a temporary stall in their careers, which makes returning to work after having a baby harder for women, and almost always makes it impossible for them to catch up with their spouses in terms of remuneration.

Now, we know there was a missing piece of the formula. If women are the ones taking a break from work to care for a new baby, their sleep will also be de-prioritized relative to their earning partner’s sleep. And so, a cycle of sleeplessness — and, consequently, diminished working capacity — becomes established that is hard to break even when the mother does return to work.

The study makes this burden clear and quantifiable: “We find that improving the mother’s average nightly sleep duration by one hour increases employment by 4 percentage points, the number of hours worked by 7 percent, household income by 10-11 percent and job satisfaction by 0.01 points,” Joan Costa-Font, a labour econimist, wrote in a working paper published by the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance.

It sounds grim, but the upside of this conclusion is that it can, perhaps, be more easily and quickly fixed — a matter of personal rather than policy change. Yes, it’s just one small piece of achieving gender parity — in family care and in the workforce — but it’s one that now has some real data behind it. If we want women to stay employed outside the home, and continue to produce on par with their male counterparts, it’s time for the men of the house to do some of the 3 am heavy lifting.

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