Who gets up with the baby? Nobody, most of the time

It was a predictable series of events. The University of Michigan put out a press release about a study on gender sleep patterns called “Wake up, Mom! Study shows gender differences in sleep interruptions.” By the time a few places posted it, people were highlighting the most glaring statistic: working moms are five times more likely to get up with toddlers in the middle of the night than working dads.

But read closer into the study and you’ll see that while gender differences are stark, most parents of young kids sleep OK. The University of Michigan used data from the American Time Use Survey, which records how Americans actually spend their time. As opposed to how we think we spend our time. This is a critical difference, because it turns out that even parents of young kids aren’t up with them in the middle of the night that much.

On any given day, 32 percent of working moms of children under age 1 reported a sleep disturbance related to the baby. Just 11 percent of working dads did. But consider that most babies don’t sleep through the night until 3 months or later. If you consider that probably 25% of moms of infants have kids under age 3 months, and much of the time mom is probably nursing the kid (which means dad isn’t particularly helpful when the child wakes up hungry), this means that post 3 months, mom will get to sleep through the night the vast majority of the time. Given how many horror stories I heard when I was pregnant the first time about children who never slept, I would have been quite excited to hear this statistic.

After age 1, things get even better. Some 10% of working moms of kids age 1-2 report a sleep disturbance related to the child (2% of fathers do, leading to headlines about the disparity). Only 3% of those with kids age 3-5 report a kid-related sleep interruption.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had several opportunities to cite a statistic from the American Time Use Survey: the average married mom who works full-time and has kids under age 6 sleeps more than 8 hours a night. People have trouble believing it, in part because of the perception of parents always waking up in the middle of the night. But past the first few months, this is a relatively rare occurrence.

I know it is for me. It may happen 10% of the time (I have a 14 month old, so this sounds about right). And yes, this past year has taken some adjustment for me on the sleep front. The kids, at least during the summer, got up a lot earlier than I wanted. But I learned that if they were going to be up at 6AM, I’d go to bed at 10PM. Now that it gets lighter later in the morning, they often sleep until 7AM, so I can stay up until 11PM. It’s not perfectly ideal, but I do sleep enough, and I’m happy to learn I’m not alone.


4 thoughts on “Who gets up with the baby? Nobody, most of the time

  1. It would be interesting to see a further breakdown of those statistics. I know with our 1st, I was up every single night, at least once, until she was around 15 months old. Baby #2 is a magic sleepers and after 3-4 months, he rarely woke in the night. I’d guess I’m up maybe once or twice a month with one of the kids. However, we have neighbors who have a 3 year old who still wakes up every single night. People like them have got to skew the statistics.

  2. I’m in the unlucky minority, but apparently I put my mom in that category, too, so I guess that’s just karma.

    My first didn’t sleep through the night until she was 2, but we had her down to waking only once (most nights) after about 1 year old, and I find that completely manageable. She is now 3.5 years old, and sleeps through the night almost every night. Waking up 3% of the nights sounds about right- maybe less.

    My second is 13 months old, and has already gone through one (all too short) period of sleeping through the night. She is currently waking up 2x/night, and I’m actually working on my plan for how to try to get her to drop at least one of those wake ups. But we actually co-sleep part of the night (she joins us the first time she wakes up), so most nights, I do OK on sleep.

    And I have to say, I don’t find the sleep disruptions that bad, even as a working mom, except for when we’re in a really bad phase- like the complete meltdown around 9 months, when separation anxiety hits and the baby just has to see that mommy is still there every single time she wakes up. Ugh. I’m glad to be past that!

  3. Breastfeeding is not really an excuse for the guy not to get up. You can easily pump breast milk and the guy should get up and give that bottle. My husband and I alternated nights the first three months so one of us slept in another room that night
    My kid breastfed for a year and if I were the only one getting up that NEVER would have happened. A lot of women have that misconception.
    My kid is 2 and doesn’t really get “up” most nights I’d say about 1 or 2 nights a week we have to go in there… and it is more me than my husband that is for sure. Also she m
    A bigger problem is kids who won’t go to bed and naptime as mandatory or at least strongly encouraged at many childcare places until the age of Xx. My daughter does not need the nap and sleeps better without it and going down at 9 or 9:30 to 8.. this gives me some time in the morning. About 25% of kids really and honestly do not need a nap after age 2, and we should celebrate it and encourage it b/c this does help working parents get quality time with their kids and quality sleep.
    The going to bed when your child goes to bed is also key, I find if I go down when she goes down, sometimes I even cuddle with her to relax myself, I can sleep 7 rather than 8 hours.. it is the quality of the sleep…and that hour of sort of drowsy work I would have gotten donoe at night I can often get done from 6 a,m, when I am mentally in a good place — or I just get a workout in without having to arrange childcare, and a rested workout is better.
    It is nice to know say that at age 3 things get easier. I think the young children under age 3 are so much work that we don’t really acknowledge all the things the working parents — and yes according to this, the working mother, is juggling and we should have more support…. both idealogically an
    b/c taking 3 years out of your job is really not an option… It also makes me wonder about the # of kids one wants to have .. after you get two kids past age 3 it seems crazy to go back and have another one, but you do miss those “needy” stages as they really do grow up so fast — and let you get back to sleep. The women do do more and these studies help us to show men how they can do more.. not just say in the first three months but in the first 3 yeas. Also once you have a kid you do sleep differently (lighter) but I find that I need less total sleep than ever before in my life b/c my body seems to know when I am down for 7 interrupted hours how to repair itself better than any other time in my life… and you defintely do not OVERsleep as a parent.. so those are all positives.

    1. @Cloud, @Calee, @Cara – yes, the thing with an average is that there are always outliers, people in the minority, etc. I know that I, personally, have a tendency to remember the awful nights. Because they’re bad! This is human nature to have bad things stand out in our mind, and have them become larger in the retelling. Also, it’s also human nature to do comparisons and get upset if there’s no fairness. So the headlines centered on men getting up a lot less than women (even, incidentally, when women are the sole breadwinner — which yes, does not seem fair!). But one could just as easily write a headline saying that “On average day, 9 out of 10 mothers of toddlers don’t have to get up with their kids.”

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