If you’re female and you have a male partner, have you ever felt frustrated you don’t seem to nod off as easily - or sleep so soundly? Poor sleep can be especially difficult when you’re putting in long hours, both at work and in the home, as women often do. A 2022 study found women in the UK spend 70 minutes longer than men every day on household chores - and have less time for leisure activities.
It’s a similar story in the US, where women spend 2 hours more than men each day on unpaid work, including looking after children and cooking. Even if you don’t have children, you’re still probably doing a lot more of the housework - and you’re more likely than your male partner or your brother to be caring for elderly relatives (in the US, 66% of informal carers are women).
Not only does all this mean we really need our sleep, it could also have a negative effect on it. An American review of research found 76% of informal caregivers report poor sleep quality. So whether you’re doing the lion’s share of household chores as well as being the main earner, you’re a working mum or you’re supporting elderly parents alongside your job, sleep is a feminist issue.
While research has found women tend to sleep slightly longer - by about 11 minutes - our sleep is often poorer quality. Experts think we may sleep longer because we’re compensating for broken or bad quality sleep. Studies have also found women are 40% more likely than men to have insomnia - regularly missing out on big chunks of sleep.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Understanding the causes of sleep problems specific to women - and how you can deal with them - can make a big difference to your sleep, life and relationships. Here are some key reasons you may not sleep as well as a man.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn hormones throughout different stages of your life may affect your sleep.
Your menstrual cycle
Where you are in your period cycle can affect how you sleep, with problems most likely in the second half of your cycle, before your period arrives.
- research shows where you are in your cycle affects the stages of sleep. In the week or so before you get your period, you spend less time in restorative REM sleep
- insomnia is more common before your period. This can be because of uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating and tummy pain. It can also be due to PMS anxiety and mood swings, which affect sleep
- during your period, if you bleed heavily you may need to to keep getting up in the night to change your sanitary protection. And worry about bleeding onto the bedsheets can lead to disturbed nights
- if you have a more severe form of PMS, called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), you might have severe sleeping problems regularly. This may be partly because you have more uncomfortable premenstrual symptoms - plus research has found women with PMDD produce less of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin before they have their period, and spend less time in the deeper sleep stages
Different stages of pregnancy can impact your sleep for a number of reasons.
- in the first trimester, you may find you often feel sleepy and want to take naps - that’s down to rising levels of progesterone. But lots of women find they don’t sleep that well at night - blame the nausea and tender breasts
- when you reach the third trimester, some of the effects of late pregnancy on your body can disrupt your sleep - such as needing to get up in the night to pee because of pressure on your bladder, finding it harder to get comfortable, and maybe having restless legs syndrome (see below)
- the time immediately after giving birth can lead to sleep problems too. Aside from having a baby to feed through the night, hormone shifts can have an impact. As they drop back to pre-pregnancy levels, you make less progesterone, a hormone that can help you feel calmer. Levels of sleepy hormone melatonin also change, and as your body adjusts to these hormone shifts, your circadian rhythm - which rules over your sleep-wake cycle - may be affected. Postnatal depression and anxiety can be another cause of sleep problems
During perimenopause - the time when your hormones change leading up to your final period - you’re at higher risk of sleep problems, with women in their late 40s and early 50s reporting more issues than younger women. In perimenopause, levels of oestrogen and progesterone fluctuate and then start to drop, contributing to sleep problems in a few different ways.
- night sweats - which affect 75-80% of women at this time - cause a surge of adrenaline and heat and result in you waking drenched in sweat. Then, as the heat fades, you may be left cold and shivery in wet sheets. This can seriously affect your sleep quality, even if you go back to sleep quickly. Nearly 44% of women who have night sweats meet the criteria for chronic insomnia
- anxiety and depression can also be more common at this time, and are linked with sleep problems
Stress, anxiety and depression
- stress can keep you in a ‘fight or flight’ state, which can interfere with sleep
- depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions can also result in hyper-arousal and keep you turning over negative thoughts, keeping you awake
- mood and mental health issues have a two-way relationship with sleep. Lack of sleep can make them worse, and that can then exacerbate sleep problems
- if you’re stressed, anxious or low, you’re more likely to have behaviours that are unhelpful for sleep - such as drinking alcohol - and may be less motivated to do things that are beneficial, like exercising and having a consistent routine
It’s usually women who have caring roles, which can mean sleep’s more likely to be impacted.
- caring can directly disrupt your sleep if you need to get up in the night to feed a baby, soothe a young child or tend to an elderly relative with dementia, for example. Even if you can go back to bed soon afterwards, your sleep is likely to be disrupted
- the stress of a caring role can also impact sleep, especially if you’re juggling it with work
Other health conditions
Women are more likely to be affected by some health conditions that can lead to sleep problems.
- restless legs syndrome (RLS) - this is a condition where you have an overwhelming urge to move your limbs. It’s more common in women, although it’s not clear why. One theory is that it’s linked to oestrogen, as RLS is more common during pregnancy. Read more about RLS
- overactive bladder - evidence has shown that women are around twice as likely as men to have an overactive bladder, which can cause you to keep getting up in the night to go to the toilet
A partner who snores
Share your bed with a man? Then there’s a higher chance you’re the one kept awake by snoring, as men are more likely to snore than women. Studies show sleeping with a snoring partner puts you at risk of poor sleep quality, leading to daytime sleepiness and higher levels of stress and depression. Research suggests it’s not the snoring alone that disturbs bed partners. Other symptoms that go along with snoring, such as restlessness, can also keep you awake.
Solve female sleep issues
First, look at basic sleep hygiene tips, to make sure the conditions you’re sleeping in give you the best chance of good rest, whatever else is going on in your body or your life. For our hot take on sleep hygiene, have a look at our main article on sleep, plus some science-backed tips for fine-tuning it.
Here are a few tips that may be especially helpful:
- cool it if your hormones are making you hot. This can be because you’re having menopausal night sweats, find yourself throwing off the sheets when you have PMS (your body temperature rises slightly before your period) or you’re pregnant, when many women feel warmer than usual and sweat more. Choose natural fibres like cotton for sleepwear and bed linen, open a window if possible, or use a fan. If you and your partner like different temperatures for sleep, consider two separate single duvets of different weights
- relaxation before bed is key, particularly if you’ve had a stressful day. Try to set a deadline for work or other activities 90 minutes before you plan to go to bed, then do something relaxing. If you only have a few minutes spare at the end of the day, simply reading a book, listening to peaceful music, doing some gentle stretches or meditation - along with avoiding your phone or tablet - can all help you wind down
- a regular sleep and wake time is helpful because your body clock loves routine. This can be really tricky if you have young children but try to get yourself and your family into a routine, so things like bedtime happen at about the same time each day
When to see your doctor
See your doctor if:
- you’ve changed your sleep habits, but they haven’t helped and you have problems sleeping
- you’ve been having sleeping problems for months
- you’re sleeping problems are affecting your daily life and activities or relationships
- you think you might have sleep apnoea
- you feel very sleepy during the day
There may be an underlying health problem that needs treating, so it’s important that you speak to a doctor. You might also have a health problem you already know about that’s causing your sleep problems, which might need different treatment (some medicines can also cause insomnia).
It’s especially important to get help if you have symptoms of anxiety or depression, as depression and sleep are closely linked. Go to your doctor for help with both.