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Becoming Sleep Nourished

October 4, 2000
Body paragraph

by Debra Woods

And if tonight my soul
May find her peace in sleep,
And sink in good oblivion,
And in the morning wake
Like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God
and new-created.

    -D.H. Lawrence, "Shadows"

How would our mothering experiences be different if we were no longer so exhausted- sometimes so completely exhausted- that we wake up in the mornings longing for just a few more minutes of sleep? Make that a few more hours. What if, instead of being sleep-starved, we became sleep-nourished? If, like me, you've spent too many days, months, maybe even years short on sleep, these questions deserve serious contemplation.

For me, getting enough rest was a non-issue in my pre-mothering days. If I wanted to sleep in on a Saturday, who was to stop me? I was unprepared for the pervasive lack of sleep that comes with having babies, sick children, little ones with bad dreams, and kids who would rather talk and giggle at night than surrender to sleep.

I don't lose rest due solely to the time spent caring for my children—ranging in ages from thirteen months to thirteen years. Somewhere along the mothering path, I decided that giving up much needed sleep was a reasonable way to get it all done. I was wrong. I don't do sleep deprivation as well as I used to. Maybe some of this is due to being thirty-eight instead of twenty-four, but it's more than likely also caused by what William Dement, author of The Promise of Sleep, calls an accumulated sleep debt.

Being chronically low on sleep makes me forgetful, short-tempered with my girls, impatient with myself, and a poor conversationalist as I attempt to speak clear, complete thoughts with anyone, including my kids. Not helping matters any is the fact that I sometimes experience anxiety with no clear cause. Research suggests that this anxiety may very well be the result of sleep deprivation. I've noticed that I'm especially anxious when I'm extra low on sleep. The same research shows that being chronically short on sleep can, in some cases, cause depression as well.

Also sobering are the studies that suggest insufficient sleep may contribute to a person's weight problems. Carrying twenty extra pounds as I write this, I have to agree. I'm certainly more likely to indulge in sweets when I'm tired and looking for a quick, delicious pick-me-up than when I'm relaxed and well rested.

After too many years short on sleep, I'm faced with a choice: I can pay off my sleep debt with some intensive catch-up sleep or become a mom who's so tired she can't function.

I'm not the only too-tired mom I know. Many of my mothering friends talk about being tired more often than not. I suspect mothers are the most sleep-deprived segment of our society. Joyce Walsleben, Ph.D., director of the NYU Sleep Disorders Center, says that a new mom may lose up to 700 hours of sleep before her baby's first birthday. Anyone who has parented children past the age of one knows that sleep loss doesn't stop there.

So, how short on sleep are we? Let's consider the times we've been up late in the night with a sick child or one frightened by a bad dream. Remember the times we stayed up to get the housework done or to finish a home improvement project? Let's not forget the occasions when we stayed up late to bake cookies for a school function or to write a script for the church play. What about all the nights when we wanted some time to ourselves and took that time out of our sleep?

Estimating one's accumulated sleep debt can be a sobering but worthwhile exercise. By doing so, we may find that we aren't the victims of a personality transplant-one that has left us grumpy, forgetful, impatient and inarticulate. Rather, we'll see that we're simply tired-so tired that our truest, best selves are being held hostage by fatigue. With this realization, we can begin to focus on finding our way out of the pit dug by sleepiness and into the light of a happier mothering life.

So, where to begin? Dr. William Dement suggests starting with a sleep camp. Doesn't that sound inviting? Imagine telling our husbands and kids, "I'm too tired to do this mothering thing anymore until I can get some serious sleep, so I've signed up for a sleep camp in the Poconos. I leave tomorrow at 8 a.m. and I'll be back in three weeks." I do like the sound of that, but it certainly doesn't fit in with the realities of my family life. So, instead I've signed myself up for a self-styled, self-led sleep camp-one where I can catch up on sleep without leaving home.

Getting enough sleep while raising kids doesn't just happen. To create my at-home sleep camp I've made a few lifestyle changes, set some rules, and created an environment conducive to sleep. Over the past month, I've trained my kids to go to bed at a more reasonable hour. Any parent who does this with their children from an early age will be doing their kids and themselves an enormous favor. I've learned the hard way that a flexible bedtime generally results in children staying up too late. However late they stay up, I stay up later. We both end up tired.

I've figured out that an early bedtime starts with an early dinnertime- no later than 6 p.m., if possible. From there we clean the kitchen, take baths and move resolutely toward our goodnight routine including stories and tuck-ins. There are times when outside activities take us out of this routine, but we do our best to make evening a winding down time as we make our way towards sleep.

For the duration of my self-initiated Catch-Up-On-Sleep Camp, I've turned the after-dinner routine completely over to my husband except when he has to be away from home. He gets focused time with the kids and I get a clearer shot at a reasonable bedtime. I spend the evenings completing miscellaneous household tasks not usually done until the kids are in bed or sometimes indulging in a good book or taking a relaxing soak in the tub.

Whatever I may be doing in the evenings, I tell myself that I have to be in bed by 9 p.m. and lights out no later than 9:30. I don't hit this mark every night, but most nights I come close. 9:30 may seem incredibly early to call it a night by our society's standards, but in my case, it's the latest I can regularly head off to sleep as I strive to offset the ridiculously late hours I've kept in the past.

These days, to aid sleep, I avoid a few of my favorite evening indulgences -I no longer eat chocolate after 2 p.m., read late-night e-mails or talk on the phone with friends or family after 8 p.m. As much as I enjoy these activities, they act as stimulants that keep me awake even when I'm determined to get some solid shut-eye.

My husband has, on the whole, been very supportive of my efforts to get more sleep. I must confess, though, that I wouldn't mind if he traded in his late night television programs for some engrossing and yet pleasantly quiet good reads. I've awakened more than a few nights to the unmistakable and rowdy cheers of my husband and 80,000 or so other football fans celebrating a touchdown during Monday Night Football or to the familiar drone of Jay Leno or David Letterman as they deliver their nightly monologues. To keep the peace, my husband turns the TV down as low as he can bear to, and if necessary, I resort to a pair of earplugs.

Several weeks into my "Sleep Camp for Mom," I'm making some interesting discoveries. For the first week or so, I found myself more exhausted, not less. I realize now that I was probably running my waking hours more on adrenaline than sufficient sleep. When I began to give my body the sleep it needed, I imagine my cells had an interesting conversation, "It looks like she's not going to be pushing us so hard with adrenaline surges anymore. Maybe we should let her know just how wiped out we really are. She might give us the full break we've needed. Let's tell her the whole exhausting truth and see what happens."

Message received. My body's tired, far more tired than I had realized, but it's beginning to heal and energize through more nourishing sleep. My sense of humor and enjoyment of spontaneous play with my kids are returning. It's clear now that sleep deprivation had begun to negatively impact my family life. I intend to make getting enough rest a priority beyond my threeweek sleep camp. Otherwise, what does my parenting future look like-anxiety ridden, lacking in enthusiasm, one long exhausted blur? My kids and I deserve better than that.

Getting enough rest while raising kids in our hurry-up society can indeed be a struggle, especially when we try to squeeze more into our days than is reasonable. Even so, striving to get sufficient sleep is worth the effort. While I realize I have a ways to go until my sleep debt is repaid I'm committed to sleeping it off and, in the process, reaping the rewards of mothering wide awake.

© Debra Woods.

Debra Woods is the mother of five, a freelance writer, and the author of two non-fiction books, including It's Okay to Take a Nap and Mothering with Spiritual Power. She is currently at work on her first novel. 

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