Do mothers sleep … as their babies get older?

A research study being conducted by Hawley Montgomery-Downs, an associate professor of behavioral neuroscience at West Virginia University, and her team of students through the Department of Psychology’s Sleep Research Lab examines the effects of sleep disruption on first-time mothers with infants six months to two-years-old.

Montgomery-Downs’ initial study on the sleeping habits of first-time mothers evaluated the sleep they get when their child is newborn to 12-weeks-old. Mothers’ quality of sleep, she found, was compromised. The women evaluated received about 7.2 fragmented hours of sleep, and it took most woman 10.5 hours to get that 7.2 hours of rest.

“To get through one proper sleep cycle, it takes about 90 minutes of uninterrupted rest. Even though they may technically be sleeping more hours, mothers of newborns to 12-week-old children are likely not having proper sleep cycles because of interrupted sleep,” Montgomery-Downs said.

Now, she is conducting research to evaluate whether sleep and daytime functioning improves as children age. To do this, she is re-conducting the study, this time with mothers of older children. Montgomery-Downs wants to know when and if women’s sleep cycles – and the impact it has on their ability to function during the daytime – ever fully recover post-partum.

Lack of quality sleep cycles cause women to have similar reaction time impairment as an intoxicated person. Poor sleep is also more likely to cause or trigger anxiety and mental health issues such as post-partum depression.

“We have to be creative in the techniques we use to solve this. We need to have cultural acceptance for at-risk women who might need extra caretakers in the home to help with the child at night,” Montgomery-Downs said. “Right now, even when it’s ‘dad’s turn’ the woman is still waking up.”

Participants in this study wear an actigraph, which is a device similar to a wristwatch that senses sleeping patterns and movements, for one week. They also use a handheld device to record sleep and moods and to evaluate mothers’ reaction times by seeing how quickly they can push a button in response to a bull’s eye on the screen.

After the week is up, mothers spend a day in the WVU Sleep Lab, where they take four naps spaced two hours apart.

Montgomery-Downs and her researchers have found that even when children start sleeping longer and better and parents return to work, caretaker functioning is actually decreasing.

“Most people consider the post-partum phase to be about three weeks; it actually lasts about two years,” Montgomery Downs said. “Responsible science can inform public policy. Major mental health implications are at stake here and the policy of when caretakers return to work needs to be evaluated and changed.”

For more information, contact Montgomery-Downs at (304) 216-6667 or



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