Why We Do It Less But Need It More
His screams jar me out of sleep, my dreamy consciousness aware of his footsteps to our door before I awake to his terror. I scoop him up, hold his 4-year-old body close, and look at the clock: 2:15 am. I take him back to his bed where he drifts off with about 10 minutes of snuggling.
I wobble back to bed, exhausted. I close my eyes. The minutes tick by. I refuse to look at the clock so I do not stress about not sleeping. When I finally give in and look, it’s been an hour. I do my sleep meditation. I lie and rest. I get up and read. I lie and rest. I cry. I lie and rest. The alarm goes off. I slept 10:45-2:15.
I may have a few soapboxes I frequently climb with my tendency to have passionate opinions, but one I feel most strongly about as part of being the best parents we can be: WE NEED TO SLEEP.
I have used the same phrase throughout several of my pieces: “sleep is everything.” And from pregnancy to the rest of our mothering lives, most of us are not sleeping well a lot of the time.
It’s not just theory; science agrees that women bear the brunt of insomnia and sleep problems. Not that men don’t experience poor sleep, but in looking at the data, women suffer more. And I don’t know about you, but my husband does comment that apparently I say, “I’m tired” more than I realize. Even when I think I’m cleverly hiding how tired I truly am.
I can’t tell you how many other mothers have shared that they also are falling asleep watching a show Friday night on the couch. Friday nights – the formerly anticipated night out to let loose from the stressful week – is now the “I-can’t-keep-my-eyes-open” type of party.
Sleep Is Everything
First, let me justify my claim that “sleep is everything.” I see this proven over and over in my work as a health psychologist. Sleep has been shown scientifically to affect the following: the immune system, mood, concentration, reflexes, chronic pain, anxiety, energy, appetite, weight, anger . . . and the list goes on.
Sleep affects everything that affects our parenting, with (im)patience at the top of the list. I have actually started to say to my children after a rough night: ”Mommy is really tired because I didn’t sleep well, so I might be a little grumpy.”
With my professional and personal experiences with the negative effects of not enough sleep, I have finally started to accept it more. I give myself grace where I can on those days after a terrible night’s sleep, lowering those superwoman expectations. When my thoughts start to go down the trail of despair about hard parts of my life, I remind myself I will see it all very differently after one normal night of sleep. It does help to stop the despair in its tracks.
Maybe because I know how very important sleep is to our bodies, minds, and spirits, and how terrible I feel without it, thoughts of WHY I can’t sleep also keep me from sleeping.
After a streak of insomniac nights recently, I had some theories about why in the world I couldn’t sleep, so I refreshed myself on the science of not sleeping.
The Science of Sleep: DO WOMEN SLEEP LESS?
How many of us roll our eyes when our male partners start snoring seconds after their heads hit the pillow? Or stare angrily at the rhythmically breathing, but otherwise still, lump next to us while we toss and turn? Why would women have more problems sleeping than men?
One aspect of this phenomenon is that sleep is very closely linked with depression and anxiety, which occur in women at higher rates. It can be impossible to reliably tease out the causality – do depression and anxiety cause sleeplessness or does bad sleep cause depression and anxiety? No matter which is chicken and which is egg, they are connected. If we can sleep better, we feel better.
It’s also commonly accepted that stress impairs sleep. There are no shortage of think pieces analyzing all the reasons women are super stressed out in this day and age. A recent study suggested that women REQUIRE an average of 20 minutes more of sleep than men, due to the greater mental activity used throughout the day for multi-tasking.
According to the Office on Women’s Health, 1 in 4 women have experienced insomnia; fewer than 1 in 5 men have. They refer to one study that found “women of all ages reported worse sleep quality than men, including taking longer to fall asleep, sleeping for shorter periods of time, and feeling sleepier when awake.”
Rats and fruit flies have sex differences in sleep habits, so there’s no way around the biological reasons women sleep less. Progesterone and estrogen affect feelings of fatigue and problems falling asleep, so when those hormones are flying all over from pregnancy through menopause, we may ping pong between not being able to keep our eyes open AND not sleeping. As if our biology is not enough of a set-up, it is all the while interacting with all the other parts of our lives that threaten good sleep, like children.
Why Moms Don’t Sleep
I would venture to say (very non-scientifically) that becoming a mother may be the biggest risk factor for sleep problems. Think about it – from pregnancy hormones, discomfort, and worry, to the newborn “sleep” cycle totally incompatible with feeling human, to 4-year-olds running screaming into your room at 2 a.m. (oh is that just mine? It’s like a horror movie scene every time), to worrying about your teenage kids not home yet, our children hijack our sleep.
I still have flashbacks to the first year of my second-born’s awful sleep. At one point, she was waking up 9-10 times a night. I read EVERYTHING I could find about infant sleep and we did it all, but nothing truly worked. I cried every morning before work because I was so utterly exhausted. A four-hour stretch of sleep made me feel like I could run a marathon. The worst part: even when she would have a surprising sleep stretch, I would lie wide awake, unable to sleep. My sleep brain had gone completely haywire. Eight years later, I don’t think it has recovered.
Children whose very existence is antithetical to restful, solid sleep on a regular basis. Constantly shifting hormones as our bodies insist on aging no matter how young we feel on the inside. “Unprecedented” stress levels in our generation of parents. Maybe we should be grateful for any night of good sleep we get!
What To Do: Sleep Hygiene
In full disclosure, I do all of these things and still have my rough nights, so I will not over-promise results. But these are evidence-based strategies in the field of sleep science that DO work, even if not every single time. And I haven’t yet reached full criteria to actually say I have insomnia as a condition (this requires 3 nights of insomnia a week for at least 3 months), so maybe these strategies are fending it off.
The following are basic tips for what we call “sleep hygiene.” If you’ve done any cursory google search I’m sure you have run into them, but I’ll save you the trouble in case you’ve been too tired to even do that.
Solid routine: Time to bed and time to wake should be as close to the same every night and every morning (I know – tell the 2-year-old!)
No napping during the day (unless you are cycling with a newborn’s sleep cycle – then all bets are off!)
Do something relaxing before bed that doesn’t involve a screen
Sleep meditations before bed or while falling asleep (I like some on the app, Insight Timer) or even practicing meditation more in your daily life for overall calming of the nervous system
Limit time spent NOT sleeping in bed – if you are lying wide awake for too long, your brain may associate your bed with being awake instead of asleep; get up and read for a bit until you feel sleepy (stay away from your cell phone — that screen and light will only mess more with your sleep brain!)
DO NOT DO WORK IN BED. All those movie couples sitting side by side on their laptops at bedtime? Don’t do that.
Limit caffeine and alcohol . . . I know, this is the least likely advice to follow, but I had to responsibly put it on the list!
Hopefully it goes without saying I am NOT a physician and would never consider this a substitution for actual medical advice. If you do find yourself struggling on a daily or weekly basis with bad sleep, it’s always a good idea to bring it up with your doctor.
If you are one of the many busy, stressed Moms who always feels tired or is not sleeping enough, I hope this inspires you to give yourself the gift of putting sleep at the top of your to-do list. You are not alone and you are working against an army of threats to restful, restorative sleep. But if sleep comes first, the rest of it comes easier. Because at the end of the long day of non-stop life, sleep IS everything.
Insomnia, Office on Women’s Health
Women Sleep Less Than Men But Need More Sleep, Chronobiology
8 Easy Strategies to Combat Insomnia, Psychology Today
Zzzzzz . . . The Science of Sleep, Psychologists Off the Clock Podcast
Insight Timer, Meditation app
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