Good sleep is one of the foundations of wellness. It is also one of the main challenges of parenting small children and attending births. Babies just don’t seem to care that we need good sleep to function! Babies are born at all hours of the day and once they are out they aren’t much more considerate. Newborns typically sleep 16-18 hours a day, which sounds pretty good, but they do it in two to four hour stretches, not the 7 or 8 hours we all crave. If you attend births, you either work shifts or on call, and working through the night is normal.
Anyone who has experienced sleep deprivation knows how important sleep is to our wellbeing. I still clearly remember one day when I was walking home from the grocery store with my son in his stroller. He fell asleep and I was so tired, so desperate for rest that I thought about just laying down in the grass beside the side walk. It looked so soft and inviting in that moment of exhaustion. I longed for the sweet oblivion of sleep.
“I was so tired, so desperate for rest that I thought about just laying down in the grass beside the side walk. It looked so soft and inviting in that moment of exhaustion.”
Sleep is clearly important to our health and wellbeing. Disturbed sleep in adults is correlated with depression, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and psychosis. In children, inadequate sleep can create symptoms similar to ADHD, moodiness, impulsivity and is correlated with long term health problems like obesity and high blood pressure. This doesn’t mean that sleep problems necessarily cause these problems; just that we know they show up together a lot of the time. Looking at this list of health and social problems, it’s clear that sleep has an important role in our lives. We spend about one third of our lives sleeping and yet, even with a great deal of research, we still don’t really know the purpose of sleep. To a large degree, sleep remains a mystery to us.
To understand sleep at all, I think we have to acknowledge the rhythmic nature of life. Throughout our lives we live with many rhythms, from our heart beat, our breath, and our sleep cycles to language, music and physical movement. All of these aspects of life involve rhythm. The rhythm that governs our sleep is the circadian rhythm. The human circadian rhythm is set to allow us to sleep at night and be alert during the day. All animals have a circadian rhythm which naturally causes them to either be nocturnal (active at night) or diurnal (active during the day). Our circadian rhythm is not something we can change significantly but there is some evidence that it can be adjusted to some degree. However, there will always be health consequences when we are up all night on a regular basis and we will never be capable of being consistently alert at night the way we are during the day. In fact research shows that up to 25% of people who work the night shift will fall asleep at some point, often without being aware of it[i].
Despite the clear importance of sleep, as a culture, we seem to have decided that it is optional. I believe this is related to the necessity to surrender to sleep. For the last couple of hundred years at least, we have been gripped by the idea that it is better to do, to act, to build, even to destroy than it is to wait, to rest, to surrender. Sleep by its very nature requires surrender; it is rest and it requires us to wait. It is not a state of doing or building or creating. It is soft and vulnerable. Modern life just has so much doing, that sleep doesn’t fit easily into it. However, I think if we’re really honest with ourselves, there is plenty of time to sleep. Recent studies show that on average, people spend 11 hours a day using some kind of screen. In case you are tempted to think that it’s mostly for work, 4.5 of those hours are spent watching TV. However, parents of babies and people who regularly work at night face unique challenges. While research suggests that people need 7-9 hours of sleep every day, most night workers only sleep 5-6 hours[ii]. So I have put together some tips to mitigate the harm of being awake at night or having interrupted sleep.