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University of Iowa researcher studies sleep patterns in new mothers

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Every mom knows that after giving birth, sleep is a precious commodity; fatigue and emotional fluctuations are part of the experience.

Everyone knows it, but, according to Michael O'Hara, UI professor of psychology, no one has documented the effect of post-birth sleep patterns on thought processes and mood.

O'Hara and colleagues did the study, and the results are published in the September issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.

The researchers followed 30 women who had just given birth and 28 non-pregnant women for three weeks. During that period, they kept track of the time the women went to bed, the occurrence and duration of sleep interruption, time of morning awakening, morning alertness and naps taken. Memory, attention and concentration, and motor function were measured in the two groups of women on three occasions during the study.

O'Hara found that women who had just given birth had more interruptions in their sleep during the night than did controls, but that they compensated for it by sleeping later in the morning and by taking naps, especially during the first week postpartum. Therefore, the overall amount of sleep per day was the same for both groups. In addition, new moms reported being as alert as control group women and showed no decrease in memory, attention or concentration.

"It is important that women find ways to compensate for interruptions in nightly sleep, but they have to be in a social system that allows it," O'Hara says.

However, getting the same amount of sleep is not the same as getting quality sleep. Women who had just given birth reported having a depressed mood one week following birth. This is a commonly reported phenomenon, called the "blues," and often believed to be due to hormonal changes. However, O'Hara found that negative mood during the day was directly associated with duration of nighttime interruptions in sleep and sleep quality as rated by the women. These findings suggest that sleep quality plays an important role in mood fluctuations, particularly in the first week following childbirth.