New mums could 'age 7 years' due to sleep loss, study suggests

·3-min read

As most parents will know trying to get any kind of solid sleep while raising a newborn can be a tall order.

But now scientists from the University of California, LA (UCLA) have warned too little shut eye in the first six months after labour can actually accelerate ageing in women.

Pretty woman holding a sleeping newborn baby in her arms
A new study suggests not enough sleep can accelerate ageing in women. Photo: Getty

The team analysed the DNA of 33 women, aged 23 to 45, both during their pregnancies and in the first year of their child's life.

Results, published in the journal Sleep Health, suggest those who got by on less than seven hours of shut eye a night at the six-month mark had a "biological age" that was three to seven years older than the mothers who managed to nod off for longer.

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"The early months of postpartum sleep deprivation could have a lasting effect on physical health," said study author Professor Judith Carroll.

"We know from a large body of research that sleeping less than seven hours a night is detrimental to health and increases the risk of age-related diseases."

Most of the 33 mothers managed five to nine hours a night, however, more than half got by on less than seven hours, both at six months and one year postpartum.

To assess how the women's sleep related to their biological age, the scientists looked for changes to the mothers' DNA via blood samples.

Our DNA provides the codes for making proteins, which carry out many functions within our body's cells. The scientists specifically focused on whether regions of these codes were "open" or "closed".

DNA
Scientists looked at women's DNA to estimate changes to the biological age. Photo: Getty

"You can think of DNA as a grocery store with lots of basic ingredients to build a meal," Professor Carroll explained.

"If there is a spill in one aisle, it may be closed and you can't get an item from that aisle, which might prevent you from making a recipe.

"When access to DNA code is 'closed' then those genes that code for specific proteins cannot be expressed and are therefore turned off."

Specific sites within DNA naturally turn on or off as we age. This process therefore acts as a sort of clock, allowing scientists to estimate an individual's biological age, according to the UCLA team.

"We found that with every hour of additional sleep, the mother's biological age was younger," said Professor Carroll.

"I, and many other sleep scientists, consider sleep health to be just as vital to overall health as diet and exercise."

Mother with newborn. Woman kissing her 4 days old son at home.
But new mum's shoudn't panic about not sleeping enough. Photo: Getty

However, co-author Professor Christine Dunkel Schetter has stressed new mothers should not panic if they struggle to get the recommended level of shut eye.

"We don't want the message to be that mothers are permanently damaged by infant care and loss of sleep," she said. "We don't know if these effects are long lasting."

Nevertheless, Professor Carroll recommends new mothers take advantage of opportunities to get more sleep, whether it be via naps while their baby is slumbering, or asking their partner, family or friends for help.

"Taking care of your sleep needs will help you and your baby in the long run," she said.

The scientists have highlighted more research is required, with a more diverse group of women. It is unclear whether other aspects of being a new mother influences her biological age or if this process is reversible.

Reporting by Alexandra Thompson.

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