Almost immediately after giving birth to Theo, I became passionate about sleep. Feeling well rested while pregnant was a challenge what with the exhaustion of growing that wee thing, so much energy spent throw (and not throwing) up, and finding a comfortable sleeping position. But that in no way prepared me for several essentially sleep free nights while birthing the child and "resting" at the hospital. Just to come home to the world's most compelling baby parties - all hosted by Mr. Cutie himself from 1-4 am. Throw in the sudden development of watermelon sized breast and physical postpardum complications, and I found myself Very Intersted in sleep.
FlyLady introduced me to the book The Promise of Sleep by William Dement when Theo was about 4 months old. I spent days sitting on the couch nursing him and letting him sleep in my arms so that I could devour this book. Here is what I learned.
Our health is dependant on getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep inhibits the production of prolactin and melatonin, which deranges our immune systems. This leads to depression, heart disease and cancer. Our personal safety is also dependant on getting enough sleep. As we wander into the zone of not-enough-sleep, our performance goes down. Our ability to perceive what is happening decreases, and just as alcohol impairs our response time, lack of sleep slows our reflexes to the point of being dangerous. Think driving cars, operating heavy machinery, awareness that your toddler has climbed onto the stove here.
How much sleep is enough sleep? I know plenty of people who say they function just fine on 5-6 hours of sleep. When sleep researchers allowed people to sleep without interruptions of everyday life and in very dark environments, regulating their own sleep, they normalized at somewhere between 7 hours 45 minutes and 8 hours 15 minutes. When we don’t get the 8 hours of sleep, our bodies record it. Sleep researchers call it “sleep debt”. Now, it turns out we need 10-15 hours of sleep debt in order to fall asleep, which is essentially a day’s worth of awakeness. But once we build up more than 25 hours we start to show the symptoms of impairment. As people slept in the very dark, non-alerting environment create by the researchers, they started paying off their sleep debt by sleeping 10 or 11 hours a night. The most sleep debt recorded was 120 hours – that’s 5 24 hour days or 15 full nights of sleep! Once the old sleep was paid back, they began waking after the 7h45m to 8h15m I mentioned before.
Interestingly, almost nobody with a large amount of sleep debt describes themselves as tired. Sleep deprivation “symptoms” mostly present themselves as lack of motivation, apathy, and irritability. Extremely sleep deprived people describe themselves as “worn out,” “exhausted,” or “depressed.” But somehow we don’t feel tired. My interpretation of what I’ve read is this: as we get used to functioning on too little sleep, our bodies go into a sort of crisis mode and don’t send us the strong sleep signals anymore. If you think big, this is a good plan. Pre-electricity, most humans went to bed with the sun, woke up with the sun. If our predecessors were up all night, it was very likely because there was some crisis. One of the last things you need while moving to higher ground to escape flooding or moving to a different geographical location so the newly arrive family of sabertooth tigers won’t consume your family is to feel constantly exhausted. So our bodies surpress the tiredness. That’s all good and well, but once we start getting enough sleep and eventually tapping into that sleep debt (which our bodies read as “crisis averted”), the exhaustion signals come flooding back. After a week or two of not sleeping enough, most people feel awful after a 10 or 11 hour sleep. I was always told I had slept too much, but it is actually called “sleep inertia”.
So what about the people who say they do just fine on very little sleep? Well, two things. My first question would be to define “fine.” Do they have a joyful experience of their days? Are they functioning at high levels of creativity and motivation? Are they easily able to be emotionally responsive to those around them, full of understanding and compassion? Are they hopping themselves up on coffee or other stimulates so they don’t feel the effects of their tiredness? Are they physically healthy – not just free of colds, but full-physical-check-up-healthy, with appropriate blood pressure, weight or lean body mass, hormone levels and glucose levels? Lack of sleep is clinically documented to affect all those things. My next question would be to ask if they are making up that sleep somewhere else. Albert Einstein is famous for only getting 4-5 hours of sleep a night, but most of us don’t know that he usually took a couple of two hour naps a day and his servants were under strict instructions not to wake him until he woke himself.
The truth is that very few people in our country get enough sleep. And many of us are parents of small children. So how do we get enough sleep?
First of all, we can keep our “baseline” sleep debt low.
- Go to bed at a reasonable hour. I struggle with this everyday, there is so much to do in the world: evening outings to attend, movies to catch, web sites to surf, blogs to read, dishes to do and toy disasters to clean up. The temptation of just a few more minutes of me-time after the kids have gone to bed is huge. But do the math. If you need to wake up (or will be woken up) at 6 am, you need to be asleep by 10 pm. Nursing moms can usually count on waking up to nurse for at least 30 minutes every 2 hours. In the pursuit of an 8 hour sleep, that’s 2.5 hours of awakeness, and it needs to be factored into our bedtime math. Honestly, if your 2 year old is going to wake you up at 6 am and you have a 4 month old, you should be in bed by (take a deep breath here) 7:30 to get a full 8 hours of sleep.
- Eliminate the sleep debt you currently are holding. Every day for a week or two, go to bed an hour earlier and/or take a nap. I know from experience that at least one sleep crisis is going to occur here in the next month – Bill and I WILL stay up and watch the several episodes of Studio 60 he has ready (hopefully not all at once), Rosie’s working on getting new molars, and we’re about to travel to Texas. All of these things will cut into my sleep by several hours. If I’m doing okay for sleep, I can handle the tiredness with aplomb and make up the few hours quickly and easily. If I come into those situations hurting for sleep, I’m going to come out of them a grumpy, ineffective person. And it shows in my parenting first and biggest.
Secondly, we can have a plan for recouping from sleepless nights.
- If you the first time parent of a newborn or if you are sick, keep going back to bed until you’ve gotten 8 hours, even if it means starting your day at noon.
- Go to bed early.
- Go to bed with your kids. This is the part, again, where I take a deep breath, walk away from this dishes so I can cuddle down next to those warm little bodies that sooth me to sleep so quickly. What I’ve learned is that in going to bed with them, I usually get the 10-11 hours of sleep they do. After a few days of this, instead of them waking me up at 7 am, I start waking before them around 5am. Then I have glorious quiet time in the morning to clean up the abandoned kitchen, start breakfast, work out or look at my email. Sometimes I even chat with my husband! It works so well that I often consider making it my daily routine, but apparently I haven’t been willing to completely let go of my nightowl ways, yet.
- If you you’re going on a trip where the time changes will work against you, go to bed an hour early for several days before you leave.
- Have an escape route for one parent. When kids are struggling with sleep, they are usually loud. For our family, it works better to have Bill go sleep in another room and wake up refreshed. Usually, he can wake up with the kids and feed them while I get at least one hour of extra rest. Even if he can’t do that, come dinner time there is at least one parent who is relaxed and available to the kids.
- If you’re a single parent, find a buddy who understands the need for sleep who can come over or take your kiddos while you nap. Have some meals in the freezer so you can do quick dinner prep and clean up and still go to bed with your baby.
- Take naps. Sleep with your babies. Set up a post-lunch play date so you can sleep if you have non-napping kids. Bring a camping mat to your office. A 45 minute nap improve alertness for 6 hours. Objective studies show that even if a napper doesn’t feel better after their rest, performance is markedly improved. Again, be prepared for about 15 minutes of “sleep inertia” after waking.
Great, sleep is good, sleep is important. As adults we understand all of these tidbit and factor them into our computations of how to lead long, healthy lives. But come on, we have lots of researchers tell us what healthy things we should be doing about lots of areas of our live. We can’t do it all, right?
Maybe. AND, as a mommy I think I have a moral obligation to get enough sleep. My children need me.
- My children need me to be healthy and live for a long, long time. I can’t do that if I’ve allowed sleep deprivation to wreak havoc with my body.
- My children need me to be able to respond to them with gentleness: to see them, hear what they are really saying, to be full of love and compassion for who they are right now in the moment. I have learned through hard, hard experience that I cannot be any of those things when I am beyond exhausted and swimming in the irritability and even rage that comes with that.
- My children need me to be joyous, creative and motivated. Positive discipline, home schooling and just plain everyday life all work much better on 8 hours of sleep than 5.
- My children need me to model a happy, healthy life for them. If I want my children to be healthy and happy full functioning adults, I need to show them what one looks like. Making the effort to be well rested and talking about the whys and hows with my children gives them the tools and understanding they need to be well rested themselves.
- My children need me to have healthy, joyous relationships with other adults. Last time I checked, my husband didn’t really like me nitpicking his casual conversations, finding fault with the minutiae of his movements or snapping at him as a regular mode of conversation. Neither does my extended family or friends. I need sleep to be kind and connect with everyone around me. And I need everyone around me as much as my kids need me.
I love my kids, I love my husband and I love my life. So I get my sleep. I hope you will, too.