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Desperately Seeking Sleep

The Night Shift

First-time mothers, who have less experience in managing both their infants' sleep and their own, may be hardest hit. Kathryn Lee, R.N., Ph.D., a professor of nursing at the University of California at San Francisco, studied the sleep patterns of new and experienced mothers. First-time mothers, she found, experienced significantly more disturbed sleep and were more fatigued at one month postpartum. The reason for this, says Lee, is that the experienced mothers fed, diapered, and got their babies back to sleep faster, so they got more sleep themselves. While first-time moms spent an average of 28 percent of the night awake, veteran moms whittled it down to 15 percent.

Experienced mothers also appeared to get proportionally more deep sleep (the restorative state) in the early postpartum months than first-time moms did. When Lee compared rates of deep sleep in both groups to their rates before they got pregnant, she found that experienced mothers spent more time in this restorative sleep phase than rookie moms, for reasons that aren't clear. Rates of deep sleep between the groups evened out when the babies were 3 months old.

Thankfully, both groups appear to get a boost from breastfeeding, adds Lee. Research indicates that prolactin, which is present in high levels in breastfeeding mothers, may foster deep sleep, helping them squeeze out more benefits from their time in bed.