How Parents Sleep
One of the most common refrains in the general discourse about parenting is the sleepless nights.
There is an entire industry devoted to the many rest-related challenges of raising a newborn. However, far less research delves into the sleep dynamics of parents with toddlers and elementary-school-aged kids. With more than 82 million families and upward of 72 million children across the United States living at home with their parents, that leaves a lot of unanswered questions — and a lot of room to help parents sleep better.
To get answers on how parenting affects the sleep of American adults, Mattress Firm and Sleep.com joined forces with SleepScore Labs, our partner in sleep data and science expertise, for a deep dive into perceived sleep duration, sleep quality, mental health and other factors. Across four weeks in early 2023, we surveyed 1,047 parents with a child between the ages of 1 and 12 living at home, as well as 368 nonparents. For those with multiple children, we categorized the parents’ responses based on the age of the youngest child.
The results paint a complex picture. Parents reported getting more minutes of sleep on average than nonparents, yet the majority of parents feel they’re sleeping worse now than before they had kids.
Here are 11 notable findings from the survey about the effect of parenting on sleep.
In a perhaps-surprising finding, parents reported more minutes of sleep per night than nonparents, though adults without children had more consistent sleep schedules.
On a typical night, parents reported sleeping an average of seven hours, 18 minutes, while nonparents reported sleeping six hours, 49 minutes.
In the survey, parents and nonparents reported similar levels of sleep satisfaction. In both groups, slightly more than half — 55% of nonparents and 53% of parents — said they generally feel well-rested during the day. But parents reported falling asleep 9 minutes faster than nonparents, potentially suggesting a greater need for rest.
However, parents were also less likely than nonparents to prioritize sleep. Nearly 65% of nonparents said sleep was very important to them, compared with just under 42% of parents.
Though parents and nonparents expressed similar levels of sleep satisfaction, nonparents set themselves up for better sleep with superior sleep hygiene — a term referring to the healthy habits and environmental factors that are conducive to a good night’s sleep.
A recent SleepScore Labs study found that people with better sleep hygiene sleep longer and have better sleep quality and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep duration. Accordingly, they also feel less tired during the day.
Among hygiene habits recorded in the parenting survey, parents were more likely than nonparents to engage in high-intensity exercise and/or stimulating work before bedtime. In the mornings, parents were also nearly twice as likely to wake up at a different time each day — 41% of parents said they get out of bed at different times most days or every day, compared with 23% of nonparents.
And overall, parents were less satisfied with their sleep environment than nonparents were, with 60% agreeing that changing their bedroom setup would result in better sleep, compared to 48% of nonparents.
There was a pronounced difference between parents and nonparents in frequency of going to bed feeling stressed or anxious. Nearly 40% of parents reporting going to bed feeling stressed, angry, upset or nervous most days per week. For nonparents that figure was 24%.
Nonparents and parents alike reported similar levels of anxiety, loneliness and life satisfaction. About 40% of nonparents and 35% of parents said they feel anxious most days or every day in a typical week. Approximately 31% of both parents and nonparents said they feel lonely most days or every day. However, nonparents were happier than parents. While 46% of nonparents agreed that they “feel happy in general,” 39% of parents said the same.
"Many decades of research have shown that, in general, parents are less happy than nonparents. This may be due to parents experiencing a variety of stressors that undermine their emotional well-being,” says Sharon Danoff-Burg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and senior principal research scientist at SleepScore Labs. “A study of 22 countries found that this gap in happiness between parents and nonparents was largest in the U.S., even after controlling for other variables affecting parental happiness.”
Many studies and researchers have looked into the sleep changes that occur during the early months of parenting. One study out of Germany found that parents’ sleep declined sharply in the first months postpartum — and took up to six years to fully rebound. In the SleepScore Labs survey, 61% of parents agreed that their sleep was better before having children. This finding is notable because it reflects the experience of parents whose kids are past infancy, showcasing the prolonged effect of parenting on sleep.
“With parents, the tendency is often to start with, ‘How are your kids sleeping?’ But once your kid is past the infant stage or, in some cases, the toddler years, parent sleep is also about parent sleep,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., a sleep psychologist at Duke University School of Medicine who is a Sleep.com and Mattress Firm advisor and the author of the book “Hello Sleep.”
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In the SleepScore Labs survey, 64% of parents said they feel more exhausted now than before they became parents. When considering that parents report longer-duration sleep than the nonparents surveyed, this is notable. This echoes the results from a recent Pew Research Center poll, in which four in 10 parents describe parenting as “tiring.” In that same survey, 62% of parents said being a parent was at least somewhat harder than they expected it to be.
Sleep plays a key role in our emotional well-being, especially during parenthood, which is a sleep disruptor, says Wu.
"During REM sleep, a lot of emotion regulation is happening. That's a couple hours per night when our brain is doing behind-the-scenes work,” says Wu. “It’s a lot harder to weather setbacks, feel upbeat, be patient and do all the other things required as a parent when you don’t sleep well.”
Among the parents surveyed, 52% say their youngest child wakes them up one to three days per week. About 20% report being woken up most days.
The older the child, the less often they woke up their parents — and the less likely the parents were to identify their child’s sleep habits as a source of fatigue. Still, more than half of parents agreed that they felt burned out as a result of their kids’ sleep habits.
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Over the last 30 years, fertility rates have gradually declined. This drop accelerated further during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, with 44% of adults who don’t have kids saying they’re unlikely to become parents. But when broken down by age, Census Bureau data tells another story: Fertility rates have dropped 43% among women ages 20 to 24 since 1990, but they increased 67% for women ages 35 to 39.
In the SleepScore Labs survey, older parents with younger kids — defined as parents 45 or older with children under the age of 5 — reported 37 less minutes of sleep per night than other parents. About 70% said getting a good night’s sleep was important, compared with 40% of other parents.
Although they reported getting less sleep, older parents with young children also expressed higher levels of happiness and social support. In the survey, 58% agreed that they are generally happy, compared to 38% of other parents. A little less than half of older parents said they felt like there was no one with whom they could share their worries or problems, and 45% said they’d have trouble finding someone to help them move. For each of those statements, other parents agreed 71% of the time.
Regardless of their youngest child’s age, parents reported similar consistency in their bedtimes and wake-up times. However, the child’s age did impact many measures of sleep quality, including parents’ self-reported sleep duration and latency, or how much time it takes them to fall asleep.
Despite some surprisingly positive metrics, parents whose youngest child was between the ages of 6 and 12 reported worse sleep than parents of children ages 1 to 2 or 3 to 5 nearly across the board. Parents of the older children reported the least-frequent nighttime awakenings of all the child age groups in the survey and equivalent or better sleep hygiene. Compared with parents whose youngest child was between the ages of 1 and 5, they were also less likely to report feeling tired because of their child’s sleep habits.
However, parents whose youngest child was between the ages of 6 and 12 reported 50 minutes less sleep per night than parents with a youngest child between the ages of 1 and 5. They also reported taking 34 minutes longer to fall asleep at bedtime, spent 29 minutes more time awake at night, and took less-frequent naps than parents with younger kids.
These parents were also the most likely to feel exhausted and the most likely to agree that their sleep was better before having children. Only 24% agreed with the statement “I feel well rested during the day,” and about 45% were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their sleep.
Throughout the survey, parents with 1-to-2-year-olds and those with 3-to-5-year-olds exhibited similar sleep dynamics. There were no differences, for example, in the two groups’ self-reported sleep duration, time to fall asleep, time awake at night or feelings of daytime restfulness.
However, parents with 3-to-5-year-olds were the least likely of all groups to prioritize sleep, with 53% saying it was important (compared with 79% for parents of kids 6 to 12, and 71% for parents of kids ages 1 to 2). They were also the least likely to feel more exhausted than before they had children.
In the SleepScore Labs survey, parents of 1- or 2-year-old children reported being woken by their child most frequently. Nearly one-third said their child wakes them up most days, with the proportion dropping to 30% of parents with kids ages 3 to 5 and to 20% for parents with kids ages 6 to 12.
Despite frequently being woken by their kids, 35% of parents with a 1- or 2-year-old said they feel well rested during the day — making them the least tired of the three groups. One in four said they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their sleep, compared with 35% of parents with 3-to-5-year-olds and 45% of parents whose youngest child was in the 6-to-12 range.
In the SleepScore Labs survey, parents with multiple children slept less, were more exhausted and were more likely to say sleep was important to them. However, by several measures — including time to fall asleep, time awake at night and overall sleep satisfaction — parents responded similarly regardless of having one, two, or three or more children.
Parents with three or more kids reported 44 minutes less sleep per night than parents with one child and 22 minutes less per night than parents with two children.
Parents with multiple kids were more likely to agree that their sleep was better before they had children. In the survey, 68% of parents with three kids agreed with this statement, compared with 54% of parents with two kids and 39% of parents with one child. When it comes to exhaustion, 63% of parents with three or more children agreed that they’re more exhausted now than before they became parents. That percentage dropped to 51% for two kids and 45% for parents with one child.
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Across the U.S., approximately 25% of kids live with one parent and no other adults. In one Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, 43.5% of single mothers got less than seven hours of sleep per night — making them significantly more sleep-deprived than both coupled parents and adults with no children.
The SleepScore Labs survey reaffirms these findings. In the study, single parents reported getting 52 minutes less sleep per night than coupled parents. They also reported taking 51 minutes to fall asleep, which is about 16 minutes longer than coupled parents. Single parents were less likely to nap and more likely to feel tired. Just 16% agreed that they felt well rested during the day, compared with 32% of coupled parents.
In the survey, 21% of single parents said they make time for self-care most days or every day, compared with 37% of partnered parents. Single parents expressed approximately the same levels of social support as coupled parents.
Although they generally reported worse sleep and less frequent self-care, single parents also prioritized shut-eye more than coupled parents. About 92% of single parents said sleep was important to them; that’s 30% more than coupled parents.
Coupled parents generally slept more and felt more well rested during the day than single parents. However, they reported worse sleep hygiene — a finding that could reflect the lower importance they placed on sleep in the survey.
About 43% of coupled parents said they wake up and go to sleep at different times most days of the week. Among single parents, the figure was 30%. Coupled parents also were more likely to engage in high-intensity exercise and stimulating work before bedtime than single parents were.
From unexpected nighttime wakings and bedtime struggles to the psychological stressors involved with raising a child, sleep for parents is highly complex — and never static.
But no matter what stage you’re experiencing, you can put up bumpers to help you sleep better, says Wu.
“It’s hard to believe in the moment, but it does change. As babies turn into toddlers and kids, the sleep challenges for the whole family change. It doesn’t necessarily get better, but it does change — and you can roll with those changes and learn to control what you can,” Wu says.
The important thing is to support good sleep habits, and to continue to optimize your routines and your family’s bedrooms to support quality sleep. As sleep disruptors change, whether due to age and hormonal changes or to the arrival of new children, a foundation of good sleep hygiene and a commitment to sleep will help you overcome new hurdles.
For single parents, that could mean enlisting help so that you have more time for rest. If you’re an older parent, those bumpers could come in the form of self-care, which is even more critical as we age and our sleep quality naturally declines. Parents with children going through sleep regressions can view that development through a positive lens that helps them fall back asleep faster. If you’re dealing with pre-bedtime anxiety, you can remind yourself that even if you’re not asleep, that restful time in bed is helpful, says Dr. Chris Winter, a sleep neurologist who is a Sleep.com and Mattress Firm advisor and the author of “The Rested Child.”
To learn more about the survey, including impacts by household income and race, download the full Sleep Uncovered 2023: How Parents Sleep report.
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