The 24/7 pace of life in today’s world has altered our most basic assumptions of living in so many ways — even the fundamentals, such as sleep, suffer.
It isn’t as if people are unaware of the dangers this poses. A new National Geographic documentary claims that poor sleep is responsible for about 1,000 deadly traffic accidents in the United States each year and that drowsy adults are costing American business $100 billion annually.
However, the concerns about modern sleep patterns ignore a blind spot when it comes to parenting. Many soon-to-be parents brace themselves for years of sleep-deprived hell as if baby care were a hazing ritual. This unnecessary sense of resignation has to be challenged. Yet change, if it is to be meaningful, must also come from the top. Parents face greater work demands than ever before, time with their children is increasingly pressured and precious. Government must adjust to this new reality by taking parental sleep deprivation more seriously as a public health issue. Practical help and support for exhausted parents would truly benefit our relationships, our children and ultimately our societies.
Parenting never has been and never will be an easy ride. Yet, the circumstances of Western child-rearing have shifted dramatically in little more than a generation. The notion of a “housewife” is commonly regarded as a quaint throwback. Today’s financial reality dictates that both parents must invariably work, often in full-time jobs. Meanwhile, the traditional framework of wider family support has also been fragmented. A child’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins can no longer be expected to live round the corner, in the same neighborhood, city or even country. Parenting has become more full-on than ever before. And yet worryingly, attitudes towards the consequences of all of this remain largely stagnant.
The cost of exhausted parenting can be extremely high. New parents often find themselves building an intolerable sleep deficit as their infants struggle to drift off during the night. With work looming in the morning and a minimal network of support to help take the strain, too many couples spend too many months and even years focused solely on work and getting their kids to sleep. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it doesn’t have to be this way. But if left unchecked, the result can be an almost entire absence of time alone together. Intimacy and sex are relegated to a fond, distant memory. The cumulative toll on a couple can be very damaging.
The impact that all of this can have on children barely needs spelling out. For a start, fatigued parents are not at their optimum, finding themselves less active and more irritable than they otherwise would be. It is not a lack of love or effort, but a dearth of sleep that too often leaves their children short-changed.
And then there are the health consequences facing children who themselves could desperately do with a better night’s sleep. There is a growing body of evidence linking sleep deprivation with diabetes, while research also indicates that lack of sleep can impact metabolic development and consequently contribute to the onset of obesity and even cardiovascular disease. You don’t need a doctorate to work out that sleep-deprived children will likely be grumpy, moody, hyperactive and find it difficult to concentrate. However, disordered sleeping if left untreated, can also heighten the onset of ADD and ADHD.
Of course, all children can be exasperating. But tired children means increasingly weary parents and before you know it your house of fun has become the house of glum where exhaustion is the default setting. This scenario can be readily resolved, but it won’t right itself, especially in the modern world. Round the clock work demands are unlikely to ease. Meanwhile, the communications revolution means that loved ones will continue to be far away rather than living next door.
If a generation of parents and children are to enjoy a good night’s sleep, then it will require an overhaul of attitudes. Parents must reject the fashionable notion that caring for children equates with a zombie-like existence and realize that they have every right to rest. So much can be done to encourage better sleeping habits, through better education and expert assistance. Many tired parents are unaware that such help is available. Others mistakenly view accessing this support as an affront to their parenting skills.
In order to truly shift attitudes, healthy sleeping needs to be placed firmly on the policy agenda. It will necessitate that leaders understand the very deep impact that a national sleep deficit can have on public health and on the economy. They must make sleep assistance as readily available as they would any other health remedy. Governments should view this type of proactive intervention as an investment.
Of course, decision-makers are not blind to the needs of parents and their newborns. Such support though is viewed almost entirely in material terms, invariably confined to financial help and subsidies (in Finland, the government also provides a maternity pack). Yet, there is no fiscal cure to fatigue. It is time that government and society find a different approach. Parents must have much higher sleep expectations from the day their child is born. At the same time, leaders must be ready to fulfill these hopes by providing quality sleep support services. Failure to do so may leave society sleepwalking into the nightmare of an increasingly dysfunctional future.
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