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Research shows that women and men experience sleep and sleep-related problems differently, with women suffering from insomnia and low-quality sleep more than men do. Women also seem to suffer more severe consequences from receiving insufficient sleep. Women might need more sleep than men, particularly during pregnancy. It is also possible that many women simply need more sleep temporarily, to recover from insomnia and sleep disturbances.
Women experience sleep and sleep issues differently due to both biological and sociological factors. Most of the biological reasons have to do with hormonal differences. Many of women’s sleep issues relate to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause. Still, sociological factors also have an impact on women’s sleep. Race, socioeconomic status, and family composition all significantly affect the duration and quality of sleep women receive.
Does research indicate that women need more sleep than men do? The answer is complex. A few years ago, multiple news articles claiming women need more sleep because their brains “work harder” went viral, prompting Snopes to issue a page debunking this claim as “mostly false.”
For healthy adults, experts recommend 7-9 hours of sleep each night regardless of thier sex. Some studies indicate that women get more sleep than men. Other studies indicate that women might need more sleep than men do, particularly during times of hormonal change. Many studies suggest that women are more likely to experience insomnia and be sleep-deprived, and more likely to experience severe consequences if they sleep less than 7 hours per night.
The idea that healthy women generally require more sleep than healthy men is uncertain and is currently being studied further. That women suffer more from insomnia and sleep deprivation is well established, however. The following studies indicate that women experience insomnia or sleep deprivation more than men do:
Research demonstrates that women are more likely to experience insomnia, sleep deprivation, and trouble sleeping. Studies suggest that multiple biological factors specific to women influence their sleep patterns and problems. Most of these factors are likely related to hormones.
Hormonal changes associated with the menstrual cycle appear to impact women’s sleep quality and duration. While many sleep issues accompany premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), research also shows sleep changes in women who do not suffer from these issues.
The following are findings from studies on sleep issues related to the menstrual cycle:
Research suggests that a rise in progesterone level is associated with an increased number of wakings during the night. Progesterone likely also plays a role in sleep disturbances surrounding pregnancy.
Many women experience sleep issues during pregnancy. Generally, researchers have found that sleep duration increases in the first trimester of pregnancy, with women sleeping an extended amount. Sleep duration and quality then decrease, with women in their third trimester experiencing the most sleep deprivation.
Some studies have found the opposite pattern, where women experience sleep deprivation in early pregnancy and extended sleep in their third trimester. Regardless of the pattern, it’s established that pregnancy affects sleep. The prevalence of restless leg syndrome also increases over the course of pregnancy. Many pregnant women continue to experience sleep issues 3-6 months after giving birth.
One study found that less sleep during pregnancy leads to longer labors and an increase in cesarean section births. The study’s researchers recommend that pregnant women get at least eight hours of sleep per night. Less sleep during pregnancy can also lead to a lower birth weight for the baby.
The relationship between sleep and pregnancy is not fully understood, but sleep changes are likely due to rapid changes in progesterone levels throughout pregnancy. Researchers postulate that the duration and quality of sleep a pregnant woman receives impacts the health of her unborn baby. Studies have found that insufficient sleep and poor sleep quality in pregnant women can increase depression, gestational hyperglycemia, and gestational diabetes.
A U.S. study of women ages 40-59 found that sleep duration and quality is tied to where a woman stands in regards to menopause. Over half of perimenopausal women, or those currently transitioning into menopause, do not receive the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. Over half of postmenopausal women, or those who have already gone through menopause, wake up feeling unrested at least four mornings each week, as shown in the following charts.
Percentage of nonpregnant women aged 40–59 who slept less than 7 hours, on average, in a 24-hour period, by menopausal status: United States, 2015
Percentage of nonpregnant women aged 40–59 who did not wake up feeling well rested 4 days or more in the past week, by menopausal status: United States, 2015
In another study, postmenopausal women were found to be twice as likely to have sleep apnea or snore than premenopausal women. In postmenopausal women, those on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) were much less likely to have sleep apnea or snore than women not on HRT. These findings suggest that lower estrogen levels can lead to sleep-disordered breathing. Other research suggests lower melatonin levels during perimenopause and postmenopause could also be partially to blame for menopause-related sleep problems.
Mental health problems are a risk factor for lower-quality sleep in women. One Chinese study found that body pain and depression are risk factors for insomnia in women, but not men. A study on young adults ages 20-45 found that women had more anxiety, and that anxiety was a risk factor for sleep disturbances. A study of older adults found that women had more trouble falling asleep, and that depression was the primary factor predicting sleep problems.
Of course, the causes of mental health issues aren’t fully understood. Biology is likely only part of it, with environment also playing a major role.
The sleep differences women experience are likely due to more than biology alone. Many external factors can affect sleep, and studies suggest that different factors disrupt the sleep of women and men. Multiple social and environmental factors influence the duration and quality of sleep a woman obtains, as demonstrated in the following diagram.
Source: The BMJ
Sociological factors that impact sleep include the presence of emotional support, race and ethnicity, income, household size, employment status, marital status, educational level, and more. The following chart shows the negative impact various factors have on sleep.
Source: Frontiers in Neurology
Race, Ethnicity, and Women’s Sleep
While women in general experience more sleep problems than men, minority women have been found to sleep for shorter durations than white women. The following charts show that non-Hispanic black women receive significantly less sleep than both white and Mexican-American women during pregnancy and in general. Mexican-American women receive about the same amount of sleep as white women normally, but much less during pregnancy.
Researchers are not certain why sleep varies across race and ethnicity. It is likely mostly due to different cultural and social factors, however, and not biology.
Socioeconomic Status and Women’s Sleep
Socioeconomic status, or where a person fits in socially, financially, and in terms of work and education, majorly affects sleep. The general trend is that women with lower incomes, lower educational levels, and homes in lower-income neighborhoods have greater problems with sleep. This could be due to a variety of factors, such as increased stress, increased time spent working or commuting, or less access to healthcare and health education.
People who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods experience more sleep problems and shorter sleep duration. This effect is even greater in women than it is in men. Neighborhood quality could affect sleep for multiple reasons such as having more noise, creating a feeling of unsafety, or lacking access to health resources.
One Chinese study found that lack of education is a risk factor for insomnia in women, though the study authors did not speculate why. Another Chinese study found that in both sexes, cultural factors such as unemployment and socioeconomic status were associated with increased insomnia.
Another Chinese study found multiple environmental and social factors to be related to sleep problems in pregnant women. For example, low-income women were more likely to experience poor sleep quality. Women with siblings and those receiving care in low-quality hospitals were more likely to receive insufficient sleep.
Family Composition and Women’s Sleep
Household and family composition impact the quality and duration of sleep a woman receives. Marital status, number of children, and other factors relate to the risk of low-quality or insufficient sleep. Researchers cannot know with certainty why this is the case, but it is likely related to stress and the amount of additional responsibilities a woman has at home.
Studies on household and family composition have found the following:
Sociologists hypothesize that children disproportionately affect women’s sleep because women spend a disproportionate amount of time taking care of them compared to men. Researchers refer to child-related work women do while they would normally be sleeping as “the fourth shift.”
The following chart shows how marital status and number of children affects women’s sleep. The percentage on the y-axis refers to the percentage of women in that category who report frequently experiencing insufficient sleep.
Source: Journal of Community Health
Another study also found that more children equals less sleep for parents. The following table shows how many minutes of sleep are lost each night on average per child in each age group.
|Child’s Age||Sleep Lost By Parents Each Night|
|<2 years old||13 minutes|
|2-5 years old||9 minutes|
|6-18 years old||4 minutes|
|19+ years old||0 minutes|
One study found that men with children actually slept less than women with children, though women were more likely to experience interrupted sleep. This could potentially explain why women slept more, if the additional sleep was to make up for quality sleep lost to interruptions. Young, single men did not sleep less than young, single women.
Women experience more insomnia, sleep deprivation, and sleep troubles than men do, especially during pregnancy and menopause. Some studies suggest women sleep more, or need more sleep, than men. Much of the difference in sleep experiences across sexes is due to hormonal differences. Cultural and social factors, such as race, income, family size, and work situation also impact women’s sleep.
Although the nature of women’s sleep isn’t completely understood by experts yet, it is universally agreed upon that sleep majorly impacts women’s physical and mental health. It’s important that women identify and treat any sleep disorders, and prioritize sleep health.