Last week, my three-year-old and I both got sick and were having trouble sleeping. He was on spring break, so that meant I worked for a few hours after he went down. Then I’d go to bed, start to cough and sneeze, and hear him across the hall doing the same. Bright and early the next morning, we’d start another sleep-deprived day together.
It was torture. By the afternoon I felt as if I had done a power lifting session at the gym (the closest I’d actually come to that was getting off the couch to make mac n’ cheese): My energy was low, and my thinking was cloudy.
But as groggy as I felt, I assumed, as most of us do, that I was still awake. I had to be, right? I was doing all of the things a conscious person does: walking, talking, complaining.
Not so fast. According to a paper published this month in the journal Nature, the fact that our eyes are open doesn’t mean our whole brain is necessarily online. The study suggests that when we’re really low on rest, parts of our brains could actually go to sleep without our knowledge. We look normal, we’re still cooking, driving the kids to school, sitting in meetings at work – but all the while, various neurons are taking much-needed little power naps.
In the study researchers monitored rats (whose sleep-wake cycles are very similar to humans’) while they kept the rodents up later and later each night. Electrodes were implanted in their brains and EEG machines measured overall electrical activity.
The rats appeared to be fully awake, but their brain waves said otherwise. Patches of neurons all over the brain started to register slow-wave electrical activity characteristic of deep sleep, and more brain cells entered sleep mode the longer the rats were kept up.
Studies like this suggest a new way of thinking about the boundaries between sleep and waking. We tend to see our brains as having an ON/OFF sleep switch: As tired as we may be, sleep doesn’t officially begin until we close our eyes and drift off. And when it comes to sleep deprivation, we assume we’re still manning the switch. We know our minds are slower, we forget things, we can’t rally to kick a soccer ball at the park so we throw on Toy Story 3 instead (guilty). But we trust that, as painful as it is, we’re still functional.
But we’re not, really. We’re compromised, firing on too few cylinders. And what’s worse, as parents we tend to accept sleeplessness as a fact of life, something that comes with the job.
I don’t buy that sleep deprivation is a normal, healthy part of parenthood, though. I think it’s a product of modern life. As humans we were built to sleep and rise in step with the daylight. Indeed, until Thomas Edison invented the incandescent bulb in 1879, families wound down and went to sleep roughly with nightfall and rose with first light. Sure, in the middle of the night babies and kids needed attention, but with so many hours dedicated to rest (and with our kids sleeping close by and likely multiple family members sharing responsibility for their care), we probably got our fair share of Zzzs and then some.
Now we stay up late, gaze fixed on all variety of screens that trick our minds into thinking it’s still daytime, making it hard to wind down. We get just the bare minimum number of hours we need to be rested – often fewer. And if something unexpected happens during those few hours we allocate to sleep – a sick kid, a nightmare, a random request for water or a favorite stuffed animal – it throws off the whole system.
In reality, we aren’t meant to thrive on less sleep than people without kids do – or less than we did before we reproduced. Most of us aren’t as lucky as the recently profiled “short sleepers,” who need six hours or less. In fact, for every 100 people who think they’re short sleepers, researchers say only five actually are.
What we should take away from studies like the one in this month’s Nature is that losing sleep really can threaten our wellbeing and ability to function. After a certain point, even if we think we’re in the driver’s seat, we’ve lost control.
I’m no exception to the problem (see above), but as someone who values my rest and has written extensively on the science of sleep and sleep, I can share a few bits of advice I’ve found that make nights more restful in my house:
1. I make a rule to disconnect from all screens (computer, iPad, phone) for one hour before bed. The combination of artificial, biological-clock-tricking light and the interactive quality of these devices activates the mind exactly when it should be slowing down.
2. Studies show that our bedroom design has a lot to do with how well we sleep. Having an uncluttered, cool, and aesthetically pleasing room with fresh sheets and plump pillows goes a long way toward keeping us in dreamland. The better vibes you get from your bedroom, the more likely you are to have a good night’s sleep there.
3. If I start to feel sleep debt accruing, I go to bed an hour earlier than I think I need to. That way an unexpected circus could roll through our house in the middle of the night and I’m still in good shape.
4. Other tried-and-true tricks for better sleep: Avoid alcohol two hours before bed, invest in dark shades for early morning light, and get your little one’s sleep on track if her night is being interrupted too.
Of course we all have some days when we’re fighting to keep our eyes open – it’s a fact of life for modern parents. But that doesn’t mean we should settle for a life of walking around with chunks of our brains checked out. Personally, I’m trying to keep my standards high and shooting for a good, old-fashioned, quality night’s sleep more often than not. My son’s early years – and my health – are too precious. I can’t afford to be asleep at the wheel.