Diagnosis: Rest in Pieces

Why a full night's sleep won't always restore you.

By Michael J. Breus Ph.D., published on January 1, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

We generally think of new moms as sleep-deprived zombies, but they actually get a little more shut-eye than the average American, logging 7.2 hours a night, according to a new study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Here's the catch: They aren't getting the quality of sleep they need.

"New mothers aren't really sleep-deprived," says study author Hawley Montgomery-Downs, a psychologist and the coordinator of the Behavioral Neuroscience Program at West Virginia University. "They're sleep-fragmented." Her research tracked the sleeping patterns of moms in the first four months after delivery.

Normal patterns of sleep follow definitive cycles, each lasting 90 minutes to two hours. Women who must get up for feedings (as well as those who suffer from disorders like sleep apnea, or the oft-awoken victims of partners with restless leg syndrome) may not log enough cycles to feel refreshed. When it comes to sleep, quality beats quantity. —Michael J. Breus, Ph.D.

pillow in the shape of a puzzle missing pieces


Experiencing a string of rough nights? Follow these tips to recover and reclaim some R & R.

  • Take naps: If you're severely sleep-quality deprived, you'll benefit most from a 90-minute nap (one long enough to rack up another cycle). But usually, a 20-minute power nap temporarily restores brain power. Set aside 30 minutes, since it should take 10 minutes to fall asleep.

  • Cut back on caffeine: Don't drink coffee after 2 P.M. If you're truly dependent on an afternoon pick-me-up, reach for green tea after lunch.

  • Avoid nightcaps: Yes, alcohol makes you sleepy. It also keeps you out of the deep stages of sleep, causes dehydration, and wakes you in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Stop after a glass of wine with dinner.