Women Give Up Sleep to Care for Others

Study Shows Women More Likely to Get Up From Bed to Take Care of Babies or Sick Parents

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 6, 2011 -- Science has some new validation for all the women who have enviously eyed their slumbering husbands as they crawled out of bed in the middle of the night to tend to crying babies, sick elders, or even just to let the family pet outside.

A new study shows that women are more likely than men to give up sleep to take care of others, making gender roles a powerful reason -- beyond medical problems like depression or sleep apnea -- that women don’t get enough sleep.

“If people have problems sleeping, physicians feel they find the problem and treat it with the right drug, technology, or surgery,” says David Maume, PhD, director of the Kuntz Center for the Study of Work and Family at the University of Cincinnati, who was not involved in the study.

“But when you look at sleep as situated within our varied wake-time responsibilities, gender inequality in those daytime obligations produces gender differences in sleep. In this sense, sleep is the latest frontier in which we see gender differences in daily lives, suggesting that we are not as equal within family lives as we'd like to think,” Maume says.

Researchers at the University of Michigan studied time diaries kept by more than 20,000 working parents through the American Time Use Survey, which is conducted by the U.S. Census.

They found that women are about two-and-a-half times more likely than men to take the night shift for caregiving.

What’s more, women are typically up longer in the middle of the night than men, an average of 44 minutes compared to 30 minutes.

Perhaps most surprisingly, that sleep gap persisted even when the woman was the sole breadwinner in a couple. About 28% of women who were financially supporting their families by themselves reported getting up at night to care for others, compared to about 4% of men in the same role.

Experts say this apparent sleep disparity between the sexes could have powerful consequences for a woman’s health, her quality of life, and even her career aspirations.