The day my son was born was the day I discovered how differently my husband and I sleep. During the first few sleepless weeks, I was exhausted but could still hold a lucid conversation. Meanwhile, my husband would come home from work and immediately pass out, face-down in his work clothes, until I roused him for our son’s midnight feed. At first I accused him of being lazy, but over time, I realized we were just different sleepers.
Turns out it’s not just us—men and women are wired to sleep differently.
Women need more sleep than than men
The prevailing theory is women need extra sleep because we have superior multitasking skills and thus use more of our brains than our male counterparts do. (I’m not kidding, this is science!) Studies show women need about 20 minutes more shut-eye each night to allow our extraordinary brains to rest and reboot.
Women are more likely to have insomnia
Because we’ve been multitasking all day, it’s more difficult to shut off the internal dialogue at night. While women typically fall asleep more quickly than men, we’re prone to having difficulties falling back asleep if we wake up overnight. (For premenstrual or menopausal women, this happens more often as hormonal fluctuations can cause insomnia.)
Our partners are partly to blame
Men are much more likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Translation: They snore loudly and abundantly. A study from the Mayo Clinic showed that spouses of snorers woke up 21 times per hour overnight because of the loud rumbling next to them. (No wonder we need those extra 20 minutes…)
Our internal clocks are set differently
Every human has a circadian rhythm that’s roughly 24 hours in length. A slew of new research shows that—for reasons unknown—women’s circadian rhythms are a few minutes shorter than men’s. This means we’re more likely to be early birds, waking early and (in theory) going to bed early. It also means we’re prone to long-term sleep deprivation if we try to pretend we’re night owls. Those few minutes build up overtime, which can lead to a massive sleep debt. But the good news is…
Women can function better with less sleep
We are, in fact, superheroes. Trials show women perform better with sleep deprivation and also rebound more easily once we’re able to catch up on our sleep. Men are terrible at both. (I could have told you this the week after our baby was born, but hey, it’s always nice to have a team of scientists back you up.)
So what does this mean for you?
I’ve just told you that you need 20 minutes more sleep each night. Get to it!
- Set a target bedtime each night and do your best to respect it.
- If you suffer from insomnia, implement a calming bedtime routine 20-30 minutes before bed. This shouldn’t include watching TV or frantically posting on Facebook. Reading is a great way to calm the mind, as is meditation.
- If your partner wakes you up overnight with snoring, ask him or her to talk to a doctor. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious problem and should be treated for both your sakes.
- Respect your circadian rhythm: If you know you’re an early bird, don’t fight it. If you’re more productive and energetic in the morning, your body is trying to tell you something. You don’t have to go to bed at 9pm every night, but you don’t need to be pulling all-nighters, either.
- Celebrate your superhuman ability to function with less sleep. (Or, if you’re like me, feign sheer exhaustion and demand extra help in the middle of the night when your child wakes up.)