Is Yawning Always Due to Lack of Sleep?

By Kathleen Doheny. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Yawning is simply a part of being human — even unborn babies do it. Yet scientists still can't explain yawning thoroughly, in regards to why we yawn, what it means and why some yawns are seemingly contagious.

Experts do agree on some points, such as how yawning can show drowsiness and fatigue. But the same experts disagree on many other points. For instance, does yawning reflect empathy or a sexual urge?

The disagreements exist because yawning research is in its infancy, according to Olivier Walusinski, MD, a family physician in Brou, Eure-et-Loir, France. He organized an international yawning conference in 2010. Scientists paid little heed to yawning until the 1980s, he says, but since then, research has accelerated — and so have the debates. Here is what the yawning experts, also known as chasmologists (chasmology is the study of yawning), can tell us.

What Is Yawning?

Experts do agree on what a yawn is. Yawning, Walusinski says, is marked by ''gaping of the mouth accompanied by a long inspiration of breath, a brief peak and then a short expiration of breath.''

If you are coordinated enough to stretch and yawn, that's called pandiculation.

Yawns may be spontaneous, usually happening when you are bored or fatigued. Yawns have even been observed in the womb. "I see all babies in the womb yawning during the ultrasound exams I do daily," Walusinksi says.

Contagious yawning, however, doesn't start until early childhood and not everyone is susceptible. Also, yawning three to 10 times a day is normal, according to Walusinski.

Yawning Research and Debates

Many experts believe contagious yawning reflects a person's empathy, and some scientists use that association to study those with autism and other conditions in which social interaction is delayed. But a new study from Duke University questions that association, finding no such link. The Duke experts did find, however, that contagious yawning seems to decrease with age.

According to New York researchers, yawning may indicate a fever has broken and that your brain is cooling. Walusinski strongly disagrees. "That is an error with no scientific demonstration and many contradictions," he says.

Another opinion comes from Wolter Seuntjens, a Dutch researcher who continues to study “the secret of the yawn,” as he puts it. He believes that yawning may have an erotic, even sexual dimension.

Excess Yawning: Danger Sign

Yawning too much — say 30 to 50 times a day — could be a tipoff to health problems, both minor and major, Walusinksi says.  A short list of what may be behind wall-to-wall yawns:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Neurologic disorders
  • Psychiatric illnesses
  • Sleep disorders/shift work/sleep deprivation
  • Drug side effects
  • Substance abuse and drug withdrawal (including from a serious coffee habit)

Next Steps

Remember, yawning is normal. Since most of us don’t get enough sleep, most of us yawn.

However, if yawning does not fall within the normal range, or is accompanied by excessive daytime sleepiness, see a doctor. Your yawns may be a warning to a health problem that needs to be addressed.

For Caregivers

If you notice a loved one seems to be yawning excessively, consider contacting the doctor’s office or planning a visit. Some medications have sedation as a side effect, and if someone is groggy most of the day on a particular medicine, it’s possible the doctor could change the dose or suggest a different treatment altogether.

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