Sleep has always been, and will likely continue to be, a bit of a mystery.
Why do we sleep? What are the benefits of sleep?
From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems like something that we should have abandoned a few hundred thousand years ago. The fact that we fall into a near unconscious state for a third of our day, every day, leaving us vulnerable to whatever horrifying dangers we faced in the early days of civilisation, makes me wonder how we ever made it this far as a species.
However, it just goes to show you that whatever sleep does for us, it’s obviously vital to our health and well being. If it wasn’t, those individuals who needed less sleep would have risen to the top of the gene pool a long, long time ago, and those that thrived on a lot of sleep would have been, well, eaten probably. Man, I’m glad I was born in this day and age. Being eaten would suck.
As of yet, the scientific community hasn’t been able to tell us exactly why we sleep. There is, however, definitely a consensus among researchers (and new mothers) that adequate sleep is good for you in a whole bunch of ways.
So what are the benefits of sleep?
We’re all familiar with the fact that we have a hard time focusing on information when we’re running on too little sleep. Absorbing information is only half the battle though.
Actually, if you really want to get technical, it’s only a third. Learning and memory are divided into three functions. Acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Put simply, you need to receive the info. Then you need to stabilise the memory of it. Finally, you need to be able to access it when you’re playing Trivial Pursuit!
Acquisition and recall really only take place while you’re awake. Consolidation, on the other hand, “takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. The overall evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for learning and memory.” 1
So even if you manage to focus on what you’re learning and acquire the information, without sleep, that information won’t be properly stored in the brain, and when called upon to access it, you’ll find yourself drawing a blank.
Now, I’m a firm believer that learning and education should be a lifelong pursuit, but once we’re out of school, learning becomes substantially more optional. For your kids though, learning is their primary responsibility for the first 18-20 years of their lives. So considering how much they need to retain, the importance of a healthy sleep schedule is hard to overstate.
We all know that when we don’t get enough sleep, we get short-tempered and irritable.
A study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who experienced even partial sleep deprivation reported feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion.2
This isn’t exactly new information. We’re all aware that we get emotional in very negative ways when we’re running on too little sleep, but why? Why shouldn’t it have similar effects to say, a few glasses of wine? Why doesn’t sleep deprivation cause us to start telling people we love them or develop an over confidence in our karaoke abilities?
Again, it’s a bit of a mystery, but some researchers have suggested that sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala. That’s the little almond-shaped part of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of, among other things, anger and fear.
These amped-up feelings can lead to an overall sense of stress and hostility towards others. Which is probably at least part of the reason why you lost it at your husband when he commented about the washing being out in the rain. The other reason being that he regularly uses finger guns and says things like, “Sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays,” so sleep deprivation isn’t the only villain here.
We can see how getting enough sleep is essential to learning and emotional well-being, but what about some more tangible benefits?
Well, short of eating and breathing, you would be hard pressed to find anything with more health benefits than getting enough sleep.
“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health. “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,”
People who regularly get between 7-9 hours of sleep see significantly lower rates of obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, infections, depression, diabetes, inflammation, hypertension, heart disease, heart attacks, and heart failure. They also report higher satisfaction with their sex lives, better performance at work, and take fewer sick days than people who typically sleep less than 7 hours a night.3
So there’s no question that sleep, while it remains mysterious, is definitely an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle.
So what about when you bring a new bouncing baby boy home? Doesn’t that mean getting any real sleep goes out the window? I mean, you’ve brought a new life into this world. Aren’t you expected to sacrifice your sleep for a few years (maybe even six or seven years!) in order to respond to your baby’s needs? Which, for some reason, seem to mostly occur in the middle of the night?
This is, in my mind, the most problematic myth about parenthood. One that really needs to be put out to pasture.
Here’s the thing. Your baby needs sleep even more than you do.
Those little bodies may look like they’re idle when they sleep, but there’s an absolute frenzy of work going on behind the scenes.
Growth hormones are being secreted to help baby gain weight and sprout up; cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies; all kinds of miraculous, intricate systems are at work laying the foundation for your baby’s growth and development; and they’ll continue to do so through adolescence. Provided they’re given the opportunity to do so.
Nature does the heavy lifting. All that’s required of your little one is to close their eyes and sleep.
This being my field of expertise, I see a LOT of people telling new parents that some babies just don’t sleep well. That they should expect their little ones to be waking them up numerous times a night.
Newborns yes, past the newborn stage, definitely not… Advice like that is so harmful.
Telling people to accept their baby’s sleep issues as a part of the parenting experience is preventing them from addressing the problem. That’s a serious concern for everybody in the family. Not because they’re selfish and enjoy sleeping in. It’s because they, and even more so, their children, need adequate sleep for all of the reasons I’ve listed above.
If your baby is waking up 7 or 8 times a night and crying until you come into the room to rock her back to sleep, that’s not motherhood-as-usual. That’s a baby who has trouble sleeping, and it’s interfering with their body’s natural development. It’s no different than an ear infection or jaundice. It’s a health issue and it has a remedy. So anyone telling you to grin and bear it for the next six years is peddling horrible advice. I’m sure it’s not done maliciously, but it still needs to stop.
Accepting inadequate sleep in infancy leads to accepting it in adolescence. The benefits of sleep don’t get given the priority they should.
So to every new mother out there, I implore you, don’t accept the idea of sleep as a luxury that you’re going to have to learn to live without for a few years.
If your baby’s not sleeping, address it. It’s not selfish, it’s not unrealistic, it’s necessary. The benefits of sleep are prolific and great.
- Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, retrieved from med.harvard.edu/ healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory, December 18, 2007
- 1997 Apr;20(4):267-77. Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night. Dinges DF1, Pack F, Williams K, Gillen KA, Powell JW, Ott GE, Aptowicz C, Pack AI.
- National Sleep Foundation, 2008 Sleep in America Poll, Summary of Findings retrieved from org/sites/default/files/2008%20POLL%20SOF.PDF