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Parents not sleep deprived? We beg to differzzzz

Feb. 12, 2013 at 11:56 AM ET

A new study in the American Journal of Epidemiology has some eye-opening findings for tired parents: We're not actually as sleep deprived as we think.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, looked at parents of kids ages 0 to 18 and evaluated how much sleep they were losing at different stages. It's no big shock that the younger the kids were, the more sleep deprivation parents experienced.

What’s unexpected, however, is that the amount of sleep deprivation is minimal (think minutes, not hours). And if you go by the study results, raising teens is a period of blissful slumber for parents. (Many parents of teens who've stayed up waiting or worrying may beg to differ.)

Researchers relied on data collected between 1989 and 2008 by the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study, where participants tracked how much they slept, how sleepy the were during the day and the amount they dozed. Then, to arrive at their findings, they factored in which participants had kids and how many they had.

Here's what they found: Each child under age 2 years was associated with 13 fewer minutes of parental sleep per 24-hour period. For kids ages 2 to 5, parents had nine fewer minutes of sleep. And each child ages 6 to 18 years was associated with four fewer minutes of sleep.

Sleep deprivation is not helped by little people waking you up too early in the morning.
Katrin Thomas / Getty Images
Sleep deprivation is not helped by little people waking you up too early in the morning.

“In general, parents with younger children reported shorter average sleep durations, and for parents with multiple children, each child contributed to reductions in sleep duration,” said study author Paul Peppard, assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Population Health Sciences,.

Peppard, who has kids ages 9, 11, 15 and 20, says he wasn’t surprised that younger kids seemingly affect sleep more than older ones, pointing to his own family dynamics.

“My older kids pretty much take care of themselves in the morning, but my wife and I definitely get out of bed earlier than we would without younger kids. We need to fit in the extra half hour or hour of time it takes to get the young’uns out of bed, fed, dressed, track down mittens, hats, coats, etc, from the far corners of the home, make lunches, chase down missed buses in the car, etc.,” said Peppard, adding that he had expected the minutes of sleep loss would be more per day, but the study didn't play out that way.

While we appreciate that the research acknowledges the challenges parenting presents to one’s quest for rest, we can think of several real-life scenarios that tack on many more minutes of sleeplessness in all parenting stages.

For pregnant women:

Any expectant mother (or partner sleeping in same bed with said woman) can attest to the fact that sleep deprivation starts well before the baby is born. One can only imagine the multitude of minutes spent either a) wrestling that big, bad body pillow into place or b) tossing and turning because every pillow in the house is not enough to prop you up and make you comfortable.

For parents of infants:

How best to recoup those lost 13 minutes? When the baby naps, it's the perfect time for catching up on snoozing. But wait, when the baby naps, isn't it the perfect time for a shower? Then the baby wakes up and needs to be fed, and changed. And don't even get us started on colicky babies who don't nap. Or babies that prefer their "awake" time in the middle of the night.

For parents of toddlers:

How many minutes does it take to walk to the kitchen and get a glass of water? Multiply that by two or three, and you’ve got plenty less shut-eye.

Not to mention the minutes spent persuading your toddler with the night terrors that no, a giant snake is not actually eating her toes.

More minutes: Bolting wide awake at 3 a.m. with the sudden realization that all the Play-Doh tops were left off the containers.

For parents of elementary school kids:

You'll lose beauty rest to the sleepover scenario, where there’s always one kid who decides in the middle of the night that he really wants to go home. (That’s at least 15 minutes trying to convince the kid to stay; two minutes for phone call to parents; another 15 minutes waiting for parents to come pick him up.)

For parents of teens:

While the research suggests that parents of teens suffer the least from sleep deprivation, this is difficult to reconcile with curfews, trouble-making friends and late-night TV and texting.

Your teen was supposed to be home at 11 p.m. but it’s 11:30 when you hear the car pull up. That’s 30 minutes in lost sleep, plus the quick five you spend practicing your best “I’m mad AND disappointed” face for the moment they walk in the door.

When it’s 11:30 p.m. and they still aren’t home: there’s the 10 minutes to change out of your pajamas, and more time spent driving over to Skylar’s (or whoever the trouble maker is) to track them down.

And on those nights when your teen is home on time, they probably want a snack and some late-night TV to wind down. “Wait, did you say the old episode of 'Saturday Night Live' where Chris Farley does the Chippendales auditions is on? Maybe I will stay up and watch it with you.”

Translation: One more hour less of sleep… but at this point, who is counting?

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