ECU study examines sleep and fatigue in chronically ill mothers

Carmel White

Mark White


Health care providers should be particularly attentive to supporting high quality sleep for chronically ill mothers of young children, according to a new study by East Carolina University researchers.

Professors Carmel White and Mark White in ECU’s Department of Child Development and Family Relations, examined the sleep patterns of chronically ill mothers with young children to determine how they manage sleep and fatigue. The researchers questioned 103 mothers with multiple sclerosis, 68 with rheumatoid arthritis and 91 with normal health about their sleep, fatigue, pain and levels of depression. All participants had at least once child between the age of 12 months and 45 months.

The researchers surveyed the mothers about their problems falling asleep; trouble sleeping after being awakened; sleep interruptions from their young children; average hours of sleep; and fatigue during the day.

“Understanding how sleep relates to depression and fatigue in mothers with MS or RA is important for mothers, families and health care providers,” said Dr. Carmel White.

She said families and health care providers should be sensitive to the importance of high quality sleep, doing what they can to support the mothers.

“Health care professionals should be especially sensitive to both pain and depression in mothers with MS or RA to ensure that these two common problems are not interfering with mothers’ sleep,” she said.

Mothers with chronic illnesses reported more daytime drowsiness, with reduced sleep quality and quantity especially noted in mothers experiencing a flareup of RA symptoms. Chronically ill mothers reported mother problems going to sleep and staying asleep, but were less likely to experience nighttime sleep interruptions caused by their children. The researchers speculated that other family members might be caring for the young children during the night, knowing that the mother has difficulty falling back to sleep.

Mothers with MS had the highest correlation of sleep problems correlated to fatigue, suggesting that health care providers who work with MS patients should include sleep assessments.

The researchers said that women with chronic illnesses often experience a great deal of fatigue, and parenting young children can add to the exhaustion.

Their research, “Sleep Problems and Fatigue in Chronically Ill Women,” appeared in the July issue of Behaviorial Sleep Medicine. Full text of the article may be viewed at


For additional information, contact Carmel White at 252-737-2075 or or Mark Shite at 252-737-2076 or

The Department of Child Development and Family Relations is located within the ECU College of Human Ecology.


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