Sleep has always been, and will likely continue to be, a bit of a mystery. From an evolutionary standpoint, itseems like something that we should have abandoned a few hundred thousand years ago. The fact that wefall into a near unconscious state for a third of our day, every day, leaving us vulnerable to whatever horrifyingdangers we faced in the early days of civilization, makes me wonder how we ever made it this far as aspecies.
But 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, longtime ago, and those that thrived on a lot of sleep would have been, well, eaten probably! As of yet, the scientific community hasn’t been able to tell us exactly why we sleep, but there is definitely aconsensus among researchers (and new mothers) that adequate sleep is good for you in a whole bunch ofways.
We’re all familiar with the fact that we have a hard time focusing on information when we’re running on too littlesleep. 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 information, then you need to stabilize the memory of it, and finally, you need to be able to access it. 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.
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 forthe 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. 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? 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’sresponsible for feelings of, among other things, anger and fear. These amped-up feelings can lead to anoverall sense of stress and hostility towards others.
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 would be hard pressed to find anything with more health benefits than getting enough sleep. 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 whotypically sleep less than 7 hours a night (National Sleep Foundation, 2008 Sleep in America Poll, Summary of Findings).
So there’s no question that sleep, while it remains mysterious, is definitely as essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle. But that all changes when you have a baby, right? I mean, you’ve brought a new life into this world, and you’re expected to sacrifice your sleep for a few years, maybe six or seven at the most, in order to respond to your baby’s needs, which, for some reason, they seem to have in spades in the middle of the night. This is, in my mind, the most problematic myth about parenthood, and one that needs to change. Because 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 thefoundation 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.
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 them up seven or eight times a night. This advice isn’t just wrong, it’s harmful. Telling people to accept their baby’s sleep issues as a part of the parenting experience is preventing them from addressing the problem, and that’s a serious concern for everybody in the family.
Accepting inadequate asleep in infancy leads to accepting it in adolescence, and eventually you end up withgrown adults who don’t give sleep the priority it requires, and all of those serious health issues follow along with it. 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, and the benefits are prolific.