Sleep. What’s That?

Parents lose between 350-750+ hours of sleep the first year of a baby’s life. We’d love to give you a rosy picture of the subsequent years, but getting enough sleep, particularly with younger children, is a hard to come by luxury. Sleep-deficits, and even REM-deficits, can easily become the norm. Unfortunately, this side-effect of parenting leads to decreased mental, emotional, and physical capabilities. Ironic, that one of the great casualties of parenting is precisely what we need to be optimal parents. (Still awake? Okay, just checking.)

The average adult needs around 8 hours of restful sleep per night. Restful sleep is the completion of four to sex continuous, 60 to 90 minute sleep cycles. Each sleep cycle consists of 4 stages plus REM. Without the right amount or the right number of uninterrupted cycles, our brain and body cannot rejuvenate.

A sleep-deficit builds up when we continuously get less sleep than we need. People who suffer may not be aware they do because judgement is one of the first casualties of a sleep-deprived brain and because after a few days it can feel “normal”. Those who are sleep-deprived also fail to recognize how impaired their performance becomes. In experiments, adults who slept six-hours per night for two-weeks reported they were “doing fine” but performed at the same impaired level as someone who had been awake for 24 hours. Even just two hours less per night can impair performance equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .05 (approximately 2 to 3 beers). Optimal sleep on the other hand, boosts performance by as much as 30%.

Signs that you are sleep-deprived are needing an alarm clock to wake up, having difficulty waking, falling asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow (10 to 15 minutes is normal for the non-sleep deprived), napping easily, inability to concentrate, moodiness and feeling tired, groggy, or sluggish.

The sleep-deprived brain suffers from a long list of conditions that include:

– Irritability
– Lack of concentration
– Reduced decision-making skills
– Loss of emotional control
– Increased negative memories/thinking
– Suppression of positive memories/thinking
– Impaired memory, cognitive ability, ability to think and process information
– Difficulty picking up on nuances in behavior and/or conversations. (A child’s subtle cue may be harder to notice and decipher.)
– Extreme sleep loss can lead to depression and post-partum depression

New research shows that areas of the brain responsible for emotion are 60% more active when deprived of sleep, making use more emotional and reactive, and suppressing our logical reasoning. Also, areas responsible for alerting and protecting the body from danger go into overdrive. It is as if our brain reverts back to a more primitive state to protect itself.

Your body’s response to lost sleep isn’t a pretty picture either. A lack of sleep impairs our immune system and mimics some biological agin processes like hypertension and diabetes. It can also cause weight gain because it increases the hormone ghrelin, which signals hunger and decreases the hormone leptin, which suppresses our appetite. This gives our metabolism a kick in the wrong direction. Making matters worse, sleep loss elevates cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol is meant to provide the sleep-deprived with short burst of energy, but persistent bursts of cortisol actually decreases energy and creates rampant fatigue. Cortisol also happens to be lipogenic, meaning it stimulates your body to make fat. So overall, our bodies get sick more, age faster, increase our fat production and elevate stress levels. Lovely.

REM sleep happens after state 4 and is our deepest and most restorative sleep. When you cut back on sleep or interrupt sleep, REM suffers the most because later sleep cycles tend to have longer periods of REM. Also, when our brain is confronted with a lack of sleep it opts for lighter sleep, hence less REM. A lack of REM affects higher brain functions like memory, concentration, performing complex tasks, navigating relationships and problem-solving abilities.

Parents with infants are particularly susceptible because infants tend to wake every 2-4 hours. Unlike adults who need 8 hours of consolidated sleep to complete sleep cycles, infants need only 3-4 hours of consolidated sleep.

Families work best when all members are functioning at their optimal level, so when a child or a parents is not, it affects everyone.

Studies abound on how lack of sleep affects children, teens and adults, but there is very little research specifically designed to determine how it affects out ability to parent. Still, it is not difficult to make the link that a sleep-deficit most certainly does affect parenting. For parents who doubt the affect of sleep-deprivation, remember that judgement is one of the first things to be compromised.

Some questions to ask yourself:

– Are you operating at your optimal level?
– Do you overreact to challenges?
– Are you more emotional, short-tempered, frustrated?
– Are you more sluggish? Do you have the energy it takes to play and engage with your child?
– Do you have the concentration needed for homework?
– Are you present and engaged with your children or just making it through the day?

As parents, we model for our children self-care and healthy sleep habits. Without proper modeling children may follow in our footsteps.

Research has looked at the satisfaction levels of first time couples and found that a lack of sleep puts a heavy strain on relationships. First time parents who were the most satisfied with their partners and being a parent, had the highest levels of sleep.

In the best of circumstances, options for sleep-deprived parents are limited. Possible ways to increase your sleep is by enlisting the help of others, take naps, and try to catch up on sleep over the weekend. Naps that are 10-20 minutes allow you to achieve stage 2 of the sleep cycle and prevent you from going into deeper sleep, which could make you feel worse when you wake up. A power nap is healthier and more effective than a cup of coffee. However, relying on naps as a permanent solution isn’t a good idea. It is more restorative to get 8 hours of permanent sleep than 7.5 hours and a 30-minute nap. Taking naps too close to bedtime can also make it hard to fall asleep. Also, moderate exercise like walking or deep breathing helps to oxygenate the body. Oxygen is critical for cellular energy production, so it helps boost our energy levels.


– In the first four months of an infant’s life, Moms average less than five hours per night.
– Initially sleep deprivation gives people a natural high. Imaging research shows that one night of sleep deprivation increases brain dopamine levels – our pleasure neuro-transmitter. This high does not last over time.
– Some barbiturates (sleep aids and anti-depressants) tend to compromise REM. So, although they help you fall asleep, the sleep is less restorative.
– Our brains become very active during REM, just as active as when we are awake. REM, characterized by Rapid Eye Movement, hence the name has dreams with bizarre plot lines. (Earlier dreams are more mundane and ordinary.)
– The average human spends 1/3 of their life sleeping.
– Snoring occurs only in non-REM sleep.
– Some studies suggest women need up to an hour more sleep per night than men. Not getting it is theorized to be a reason why women suffer from greater rates of depression.
– Those over 65 need the least amount of sleep (approx. 6 hours).
– One of the best predictors of insomnia later in life is having sleep disturbed by young children.
– The brain recordings that lead to the discovery of REM were not done until 1953, partly because the scientists involved did not want to waste paper.
– The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving causes 100,000 accidents, 71,000 injuries, and 1,550 fatalities in the US per year.
– Exposure to noise at night, especially in the first and last two hours, can suppress immune function even if the sleeper does not wake.
– The light from digital alarm clocks can be enough to disturb sleep even if the sleeper is not fully awake.
– Individuals sometime wake in-between sleep cycles, without even knowing it. If we come to full consciousness we may decide to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water.
– Body temperature and the brain’s sleep-wake cycle are closely linked. That is why hot summer nights can cause restlessness.
– Excessive sleep can also be dangerous. Women who slept nine hours or more per day had a 38% greater risk for heart disease than those who slept for 8 hours.
– Insomnia differs from sleep-deprivation because individuals are too wired or stressed to fall asleep.

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