For many mothers, a good night’s sleep becomes a luxury item after the baby is born. But sleep deficits, especially right after delivery, when the child’s demand for attention and care is greater, can take a high toll on new mothers. A study recently published in the scientific journal Sleep Health showed that the lack of sleep suffered by women in the first six months of a baby’s life can accelerate cell aging.
Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) followed 33 women aged 23 to 45 during pregnancy and the first year of their children’s lives. During this period, they took blood samples to determine their “biological age”, which may differ from their chronological age, through DNA analysis.
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The participants’ nighttime sleep ranged from five to nine hours. However, more than half of them slept less than seven hours a day. The results showed that one year after the baby was born, the biological age of mothers who slept less than seven hours at the six-month mark was 3 to 7 years older than those who slept seven hours or more. The older the biological age of an individual, the greater the risk of illness and early death.
“We found that with each additional hour of sleep, the mother’s biological age was younger. I and many other sleep scientists consider sleep health as vital to overall health as diet and exercise,” said Judith Carroll, study author and professor of psychobiology at UCLA.
Women with greater sleep deprivation also had shorter telomeres in their white blood cells. Shortened telomeres have been linked to an increased risk of health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and early death.
“The first few months of postpartum sleep deprivation can have a lasting effect on physical health. We know from a large body of research that sleeping less than seven hours a night is harmful to health and increases the risk of age-related illnesses,” said Judith.
Despite the results, researchers point out that accelerated biological aging associated with sleep loss does not automatically cause damage to the body. “We don’t want the message to be that mothers will be permanently harmed by baby care and sleep loss. We don’t know if these effects are long-lasting,” said co-author Christine Dunkel Schetter, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA.
More studies are needed to better understand the long-term impact of sleep loss on new mothers, what other factors may contribute to sleep loss during this period, and whether the effects of biological aging are permanent or reversible.
However, the message for new mothers is that they should take advantage of opportunities to sleep a little longer, such as napping during the day when the baby is sleeping, accepting help from family and friends, and sharing the baby’s care with their partner.