Posted July 10, 2012

Sleep deprivation and postpartum weight gain are focus of new study

  • Herring

It’s no secret that most new mothers lose sleep during the first year after giving birth. What’s not as clear is whether that sleep loss contributes to postpartum weight gain or increased risk for cardiometabolic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

This question is especially pertinent for low-income, minority mothers  — a group that retains two to three times more weight in the year after childbirth compared to whites.

Temple researcher Sharon Herring is now investigating these questions thanks to a $486,000 Clinical Scientist Development Award from the Doris Duke Foundation. Herring was one of only 16 physician scientists from universities across the country recently selected to receive the annual award, and the first ever from Temple.

“Low-income, minority women have the highest rates of obesity in America,” says Herring, an assistant professor at Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education.

“The childbearing period is a stage in life where women are at high risk for gaining extra weight. However, efforts to develop effective obesity prevention interventions among minority women during and after pregnancy have been hampered by the lack of data about what behaviors can be changed to help them lose the baby weight.”

While things like postpartum diet, physical activity and psychosocial factors certainly play a role in whether a woman gains or loses weight after giving birth, much of the variability in postpartum weight change has yet to be explained, according to Herring.

One novel, modifiable risk factor of increasing interest is sleep duration, as numerous studies have found an increased risk of obesity and cardiometabolic disorders among adults and children with chronic insufficient sleep. However, little is known about how acute changes in sleep after pregnancy affect a woman’s cardiometabolic health.

During her three-year study, Herring will examine the influence that postpartum sleep time has on weight gain and cardiometabolic risk factors in nearly 300 urban, low-income mothers.

“An additional goal is to explore the factors that influence postpartum sleep duration, something that is not completely understood,” says Herring. “Clearly, newborns’ sleep and feeding schedules explain much of a mom’s sleep deprivation, but sociodemographic and psychosocial factors may also play a role.”

During the study, Herring will use objective sleep measures such as motion detectors to determine women’s sleep habits. She will collect mothers’ blood along with measure weight and blood pressure to assess risk of diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Questionnaires will also be administered to assess mothers’ mood, demographic characteristics and other modifiable postpartum behaviors (such as breastfeeding, diet, and activity).

“If we determine that sleep deprivation is a contributing factor to weight gain, we can design interventions to improve mothers’ sleep that enhance existing dietary and activity strategies,” says Herring. “This has the potential to improve the long-term health of women.”