Work stressors. Chores. Tomorrow’s to-do list. Childcare. Finances. Worst case scenarios. These are just a few of the thoughts swirling around women’s minds as they lie awake in the middle of the night, desperately needing the rest they can’t get. Sleepopolis surveyed and interviewed multiple women who stated those anxieties, and many others, are some of the unique reasons women might struggle even more than men to get the quality and quantity of sleep to survive and thrive the next day.
In this 2023 survey of over 2,000 participants, Sleepopolis also found disparities in men’s and women’s sleep, including the fact that 61 percent of women reported struggling with falling and staying asleep, compared to 39 percent of men. Additionally, of the respondents who struggle to sleep every single night, 65 percent were women and 35 percent were men. Researchers are working to discover more about the vast differences in sleep issues between men and women.
Multiple recent studies, books, and documentaries have called out the “invisible load” of women, especially mothers, when it comes to uneven distribution of physical and mental tasks in the household and beyond. For example, in 2019, Harvard researchers concluded that cognitive labor is a gendered phenomenon, with women doing more of the anticipation and monitoring within a family, and that gender inequality at the household level needs further analysis.
Recently, Netflix aired the documentary “Fair Play,” based on Eve Rodsky’s book, showing multiple reasons women and mothers might be exhausted as they handle playdates and book fairs, childcare issues and medical appointments. As the conversation about women’s mental load progresses, there’s also more opportunity to discuss a vital part of health and wellness — their sleep, and the barriers impeding it, along with necessary solutions.
Only 26 percent of women report their sleep levels as “excellent” or “very good,” though they are more likely than men to say sleep is a high priority, according to the Casper-Gallup State of Sleep in America Report 2022. Dr. Shelby Harris, Sleepopolis’ director of sleep health, says she certainly sees more women than men having a harder time falling and staying asleep, a widespread issue even inspiring her book, “The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia.” Here’s what she, and other experts, recommend for women struggling with sleep.
Blame The Hormones
It’s not all in your head — hormones play a significant role in women’s lives, including having an impact on their sleep quality and quantity. “Hormonal shifts are a major reason for sleep challenges. Some women often have issues with insomnia just before their monthly cycle, others struggle during pregnancy and just after the baby arrives, and perimenopause/menopause is a huge factor with hot flashes, night sweats, racing thoughts and major hormonal changes/swings,” Harris says.
Julie Neale, 51, a work-from-home mom who runs the podcast Mother’s Quest in the San Francisco Bay area, agrees. For her, menopause was a trying time for sleep, with hot flashes and heading to the bathroom multiple times per night to blame. She has always struggled with getting enough hours of sleep each night, and this only made it worse. “I take some supplements and that’s really helped me with that. And I have an amazing fan on at all times.”
In addition to menopause, other major changes in women’s hormones, from puberty to pregnancy and beyond, can alter sleep. Dr. Kristen Casey, a clinical psychologist specializing in insomnia, explains that those hot flashes impede on your body’s ability to maintain the necessary body temperature for great sleep. “Hormones can change with medical concerns and medical issues as well. So if [women] are impacted in other ways, such as with thyroid issues, it can impact sleep as well.”
When We Just Can’t Turn Off Our Brains Or Anxiety
One of our survey participants, Megan, a 38-year-old mom of three, explains that she finds herself running through the family’s daily schedule and what she has to do the next day when she’s trying to sleep. Whether it’s typical daily stress, or a mental health condition, stress and anxiety are a major inhibitor for women’s sleep — women are twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder in their lifetimes as well.
“When we’re in a heightened arousal state, which means we have a higher propensity to experience anxiety at night, it does inhibit falling asleep, like initiating sleep, and it also inhibits maintaining sleep,” Casey says, adding that people with anxiety might wake up before their alarm, “edged up.”
“People who have that experience are kind of ruminating or thinking, and they can’t fall asleep — it does spill over into the next day or week, or even months. They are like ‘God, I’m just not getting sleep because I just can’t stop thinking.””
In addition, Casey points to other factors raising the risk of insomnia, including being unemployed or divorced, widowed or separated, or having a lower socioeconomic status. “I can only imagine working two jobs and trying to take care of a child. That’s going to impact sleep and anxiety,” she says.
Stealing Back Some Personal Time — Revenge Bedtime Procrastination
When women do get a moment to themselves, especially for moms whose kids have finally fallen asleep after their eighth bedtime story, they can self-sabotage their own bedtime routine through “revenge bedtime procrastination.” Neale is an expert at this, finding herself binge-watching episodes of “This is Us” late into the night.
“Sometimes just putting on a show feels like I can finally do something that feels relaxing,” she says. “So when it keeps queuing up the next episode, it’s hard to say no.” But she also is sometimes working on advocacy and support issues for her two children, ages 10 and 18, both neurodivergent, as they navigate the world, a task that often falls into evening hours when she feels more productive and creative.
But, as Neale’s holistic health care professional puts it, missing even a few hours of sleep can harm your health, and getting under five hours of sleep, which Neale sometimes does, can literally shorten your life. This got her attention even in spite of the temptation of relaxing to an addictive show or getting just one more task done.
Seeking Solutions To Sleep Issues
Sixty percent of women surveyed by Sleepopolis said they’ve tried to get help for their sleep challenges, with methods ranging from meditation, natural sleep aids, medication, counting sheep, and working with a sleep specialist. But plenty of women wait until push comes to shove before they start looking for help.
The last thing Neale had time for when her husband started noticing her snoring and gasping for breath while sleeping was figuring out whether she had sleep apnea through a sleep study. But she knows getting to the bottom of it is essential to her health and is now pursuing solutions to sleep apnea, often diagnosed in women around the time of menopause, as it was for her.
Neale has tried multiple solutions to improve sleep. She uses a wearable device that collects data on her sleep cycles, called Oura. She has moved her phone to the kitchen to avoid scrolling first thing, opting for a morning wakeup routine instead. She uses a planner to get those spinning thoughts out of her mind to settle into sleep, and works with a holistic doctor as her wellness coach.
Casey adds that it can be helpful to work through stressors in your life that are causing anxiety and preventing sleep, with the goal not to eliminate them completely, but to just reduce them enough to get some rest.
“Can I do anything differently? How can I reduce my stress this week, even if it’s 5 percent? What’s out of my control?” Casey says. She also uses scheduled worry time as a tool with clients to help prevent stressors from slipping into bed with them.
Harris adds prioritizing a bedtime routine is a must for women. “Don’t force it. If you’re not sleepy, don’t bother going to bed until you are. Make sure to have a solid wind-down routine at least 30 minutes before bed where you don’t use screens. Sleep isn’t an on-off switch, instead work to dim the lights as well as your brain and body. Also, make sure to get up at the same time every single morning.”
Harris recommends starting with some basic sleep hygiene rules, such as limiting caffeine eight hours before bed, cutting alcohol and heavy meals within three hours of bed, and not exercising right before bed. If you aren’t improving your sleep in 3-4 weeks, reach out to your health care provider for next steps. There are many evidence-based, effective treatments available for insomnia (including non-medication approaches like Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia), so don’t suffer in silence. With everything women do, getting enough rest is a must.