Sleep always has been and will likely continue to be a bit of a mystery. From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems like something that we should have abandoned a few hundred thousand years ago. 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 civilization… it’s a wonder how we ever made it this far as a species.
But this just goes to show you that whatever sleep does for us, it’s obviously vital to our health and wellbeing. If it wasn’t, those individuals who needed less sleep would have risen to the top of the gene pool a long time ago, and those that thrived on a lot of sleep (like me) would have been very, very dead.
As of yet, the scientific community hasn’t been able to tell us exactly why we sleep, but there is definitely a consensus among researchers (and new mothers) that adequate sleep is good for you in many, many ways.
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 a piece of the puzzle though. Learning and memory are divided into three functions: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Put simply, you need to receive the information, then you need to form a memory of it, and finally, you need to be able to access it when you’re watching Jeopardy!
Acquisition and recall really only take place while you’re awake. Consolidation, on the other hand, takes place during sleep. The overall evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for both memory and learning.
So even if you manage to focus on what you’re learning while you’re awake, without adequate sleep, that information won’t be properly stored in the brain. When called upon to access it, you’ll find yourself drawing a blank.
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 young kids though, learning is their primary responsibility. 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 anger, stress, sadness, and mental exhaustion. This isn’t exactly new information. We’re all aware that we get very emotional in very negative ways when we’re running on too little sleep. But the question is, why?
Some researchers have suggested that sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala – the small almond-shaped part of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of anger and fear (among other things). The exacerbation of these feelings can lead to an overall sense of stress and hostility towards others, which is probably why we lose our cool so easily when sleep deprived.
We can see how getting enough sleep is essential to learning and emotional wellbeing, but what about some more tangible benefits? Well, short of eating and breathing, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything with more health benefits than getting enough sleep.
Sleep expert and neuroscientist at the National Institute of Health, Dr Merrill Miller, says that sleep services, “all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness, and mood. Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies.” Adults 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.
There’s no question that sleep, while it remains mysterious, is definitely an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle.
Does that all have to change when you have a baby? Since you’ve brought a new life into this world, are you expected to sacrifice your sleep for a few years?
This, in my mind, is the most problematic myth about parenthood and one that needs to be debunked once and for all. 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 your baby gain weight, cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies, all kinds of intricate systems are working to lay the foundation for your little one’s growth and development. These systems will continue to work hard each night through adolescence, provided your child has the opportunity to get consolidated nighttime sleep.
This being my field of expertise, I see a LOT of people telling new parents that babies just don’t sleep well and that they should expect their little ones to be waking up several times throughout the night for years to come. I would just like to set the record straight here – that advice isn’t just wrong, it’s harmful. Telling people to blindly accept their baby’s sleep issues as part of the “parenting experience” is preventing them from addressing a problem that can be a serious concern for health, emotional wellbeing, and development. Parents concerned about their sleep situation don’t just want to sleep late on weekends; they, and even more so, their kids, need adequate sleep for all the reasons listed above.
If your child is waking up 7 or 8 times a night and crying until you go in and 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. Anyone telling you to grin and bear it for the next six years is, I’m sorry to say, peddling horrible advice. I’m sure it’s not done maliciously, but it needs to stop.
Accepting inadequate sleep in infancy leads to accepting it in childhood and adolescence and, eventually, you end up with grown adults who don’t give sleep the priority it requires, and all of those serious health issues follow along with it.
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, and the benefits are prolific.
Jamie Engelman holds a BA in psychology, an MS in child development, and has spent many years providing personal, in-home support to new moms and families with young children. She is a certified pediatric sleep consultant, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and helps exhausted parents get their little ones sleeping through the night and taking restorative daytime naps so that everyone in the family can get the rest they so desperately need.