Just this week, I had to have a serious talk with someone in my household about the importance of sleep for the sake of the rest of the family, because lack of sleep makes one edgy, lethargic and generally cranky. This person has been going to bed too late and has to get up at 6:30 a.m. to get ready to go. We had a talk about sneaking looks at a screen and the effects of blue light on sleep quality.
It wasn’t my son or husband; they have their own challenges with staying asleep, sleepwalking, staying up late and snoring (and I won’t say who does which).
It’s me. I’m the one trying to pretend I can get by on five and six hours of sleep when I really need at least seven. Optimally, eight.
Why do mothers (and really, parents, across the board) do this to ourselves? We ensure our kids have bedtime rituals and good “sleep hygiene” — soft nightlights, no screens before bedtime, warm baths. After they fall asleep, we scurry to complete chores, pick up the house, balance the budget and pursue our dreams. And leap tall buildings in a single bound. I mean, Superman didn’t seem to ever sleep, but he’s a comic book character. This is real life, and I can’t explain why I keep trying to be Supermom.
"Every time you say ‘yes’ to something, you’re saying no to something else. For many women, that something is sleep,” says Deborah Gilboa, a Pittsburgh-based family doctor. “We often convince ourselves that sleep is a luxury when in fact it’s a medical necessity. Want to lose weight? Get 45 more minutes of sleep every night. Want to lower your risk of heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke? Sleep more. Getting over a cold or trying to heal an injury? Or just want your immune system to protect you a little better from whatever is going around? Sleep is the answer. And — this one may be scary — sleeping fewer than six hours a night leads to an almost-doubling of your risk for premature death.”
Add to this list that the risk of driving drowsy is a major issue; it has similar characteristics to driving drunk. That’s not something you want to experience when you’re taking your kids to school.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is known for his rigid sleep schedule, which reportedly includes going to bed at 8:30 and rising at 5:30 every morning. Doctors and experts on sleep will confirm this is healthy habit forming, and they tout the benefits of being consistent and protective of sleep. To be sure, when I talk with friends about being overwhelmed, someone will invariably tell me to get up earlier and get things done before the rest of the family wakes up. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help when you’re a writer with a night-owl “chronotype” — that is, a built-in proclivity toward certain sleep patterns.
In college, my friends and I liked to joke that we’d sleep when we were dead. As a college athlete, I was up and on the river with the rowing team at 5:30 a.m., six days a week, but somehow I burned the midnight oil and made it to practice. Now, getting up at 5:30 a.m. feels like I’m in the middle of sleep deprivation torture.
“The biggest reason people don’t sleep is because we’re too busy,” says Lori Strong, Austin-based founder of Strong Little Sleepers. “We’re inundated with images and messages that you have to be a perfect mother or father. The misconception is that if you’re sleeping, you’re not working hard and you’re not being productive.”
In America, we spend a lot of money on creams and serums to hide under-eye circles and wrinkles, botulism toxins to freeze our faces, and spa treatments to relax our nerves and invigorate our skin. Forbes cites statistics that forecast the skin care segment of the beauty industry to top $130 billion by this year. That’s a whole lot of wrinkle prevention that could be at least partially mitigated with extra shut-eye.
It’s not easy to work more sleep into your schedule, but it’s worth it.
Surviving on coffee makes me look and feel gray and aged. When I get a solid night of sleep, I am more patient with everyone around me, and I can look in the mirror and not feel like a shadow of myself.
“Your body will eventually crash, even though you can survive on less sleep,” Strong says. “But what it’s doing on the inside is detrimental and makes you look aged.”
Gilboa says we’re better parents when we get enough sleep. We have improved memory, learn more easily and acquire new skills faster. And — probably most important to our kids — our mood is more stable. Decreased irritability is a huge advantage of sleeping enough.
“Often, the most compelling reason I give my patients for taking care of themselves through sleep is simple,” she says. “Kids learn more from what we do than what we say. So lead by example."
We all need to be better about setting boundaries, saying no and prioritizing sleep. Here are some of Strong’s suggestions for how parents can get more sleep:
1. Move your phone away from your bedside table. People today have a tendency to look at their screen one more time before they go to sleep. Give your body a good hour away from screens to wind down and purge the blue light that inhibits melatonin; our brains need time to prepare to sleep.
2. Take a look at your sleep environment. Do you have a bunch of little lights and charging elements glowing all around you? That includes the old digital clock by your bed, if anyone does that anymore. For both you and your child, try an amber or red night light instead of white.
3. Planning a big trip? For the sake of Mickey Mouse and for your sanity, make sure that you get plenty of sleep a few weeks before. Don’t start the trip exhausted, because you won’t have a chance to make it up.
4. Limit caffeine and alcohol after lunch — one may keep you from falling asleep, and the other can keep you from staying asleep.