Most health studies about single-parent families focus on the well-being of children, but experts are increasingly turning their focus to how the adults in the equation fare.
And at least one measure is particularly bleak, according to one new survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.
They found that single parents, and especially single moms, have the worst sleep on almost all measures compared to adults in two-parent families and adults with no children. Single parents with kids under 18 years old have shorter sleep times, more trouble falling asleep and struggle to stay asleep. When they wake up, single parents are also less likely to feel well-rested.
The study is the NCHS' first deep dive into the sleep health of single parents, and goes further than most sleep studies by measuring sleep quality -- how good and restful that sleep is -- instead of merely tracking the length of time a person sleeps. This is an important group to study, experts say, because single-parent households are on the rise.
"Our study contributes something by paying some attention to the health of single parents themselves,” Colleen N. Nugent of NCHS told The Huffington Post. “Given how important sleep is for health and wellbeing, it’s something we need to pay attention to."
How single parents sleep
About 43.5 percent of single moms got less than seven hours of sleep, compared to 31.2 percent of women in two-parent families and 29.7 percent of women without children. Among single dads, this number was 37.5 percent.
Single moms also had lower quality sleep. About 24 percent of single moms said they had trouble falling asleep, 28.2 percent said they had trouble staying asleep, and 52 percent said they didn’t feel rested when they woke up.
Single dads also suffered from poor sleep quality, compared to married and childless counterparts, but the differences aren’t as stark as the divide between single moms and married and/or childless women.
There may be biological reasons for the sleep disparities. Women in general can have poorer quality sleep because of a complex mix of hormones related to periods, pregnancy or menopause. For instance, Nugent's team found that women in two-parent households generally got the same length of sleep as their male partners, but the quality was worse -- married moms also had more trouble falling asleep, staying asleep and feeling as rested as their husbands.
Why it matters
While the study didn't distinguish between single parents who were primary caretakers and those who were part-time caretakers, single-parent households have only one adult who is typically bringing home the bacon, frying it and then cleaning up afterward -- all while watching the kids. It’s no wonder that sleep for the caregiver is everyone’s last priority.
"Other research has shown that single parenthood is linked to stress and psychological distress,” Kristi Williams, a sociologist at Ohio State University and a senior scholar at the non-partisan research organization Council on Contemporary Families, told HuffPost. "However, we know very little about the processes that underlie these patterns. This new [sleep] report is important because it suggests that sleep detriments may play an important role."
As Williams pointed out, the study doesn’t actually show whether single parenthood causes sleep problems. Because single parenthood is also concentrated among poor and racial minority groups, it’s hard to tell whether being a single parent, being poor or being part of a certain minority group is a stronger factor in poor sleep and poor health.
Still, Williams praised the report for shedding light on the health of single parents -- an under-researched topic, especially considering that the rates of single parenthood are rising in the U.S.
"The rise of single parenthood and non-marital fertility is arguably one of the most significant demographic trends in contemporary society: approximately 41 percent of all births in the U.S. now occur to unmarried women,” said Williams. "This means that family policy is health policy."