Sleep has always 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. The fact that we fall into a near unconscious state for a third of our day, every single day, leaving us vulnerable to whatever horrifying dangers we faced in the early days of civilization, makes me wonder how we ever made it this far as a species.
But it just goes to show you that whatever sleep does for us, it’s obviously vital to our health and wellbeing. If it wasn’t, our early human ancestors 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. If I had lived back in that day and age, I would have been in the latter group. I guess it’s another reason to be grateful that I live in today’s world!
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 mommas) that adequate, quality sleep benefits you in numerous ways.
Sleep Benefits Learning
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 information, then you need to stabilize the memory of it, and finally, you need to be able to access it five years from now when you’re at Trivia night at the brewery down the street.
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. Then when called upon to access it, you’ll find yourself drawing a blank and making that face. You know the one your husband gets when you ask him if he heard what you just said? Yea, that one.
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. Considering how much they need to retain; the importance of a healthy sleep schedule is hard to overstate.
Sleep Benefits our Mood
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. I think we’re all pretty aware that we get emotional in very negative ways when we’re running on too little sleep, but why? Shouldn’t it have similar effects to say, a few glasses of wine? Wouldn’t it be great if sleep deprivation caused us to start telling people we love them or develop an overconfidence in our karaoke abilities? Too bad it does the opposite most the time.
Why does sleep deprivation affect us this way? Well, it’s a bit of a mystery. 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. This is probably at least part of the reason why you lost it at your co-worker when she asked you how your weekend was. The other reason is that she regularly says things like “after I had my baby, I lost the baby weight in 6 days!” and doesn’t even attempt to hide her judgmental stare that you are eating, yes another, cookie. (Please tell me this wasn’t just my experience…) So, I guess sleep deprivation isn’t the only villain here.
Sleep Benefits our Health
We can see how getting enough sleep is essential to learning and emotional well-being, but what about some more tangible sleep 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
WOW! Sleep can help prevent a lot of negative health issues. So, there’s no question that sleep, while it remains mysterious, is definitely an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle. You might even call it magical.
Sleep Benefits and Motherhood
Now that you have a baby, that all changes, right? I mean, you’ve brought a new life into this world. 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.
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, which continue to do so through adolescence, provided they’re given the opportunity to do so.
Nature does the heavy lifting. Now your little one just needs to close their eyes and log a long night of quality, consolidated 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 them up seven or eight times a night. When I see it, it gets me REALLY fired up.
To those people, I would just like to say, you have absolutely NO idea what you’re talking about! So, stop it now! The advice you are giving new moms and dads 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. That’s a serious concern for everybody in the family. Not because they’re selfish and enjoy sleeping late. It’s because sleep benefits them, and even more so, their kids, 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 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 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. 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.
So, to every new momma out there, I implore you, do not accept the idea of sleep as a luxury that you’re going to have to learn to live without for a few years. It does not have to be this way!
If your baby’s not sleeping, address it. Help them learn to sleep well. It’s not selfish. It’s not unrealistic. It is important, and it is necessary. The benefits your child will reap by learning to sleep independently and well from an early age are prolific.
Cheers to healthy, happy sleep!
1Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, retrieved from healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/ healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory, December 18, 2007
2Sleep. 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.
3 National Sleep Foundation, 2008 Sleep in America Poll, Summary of Findings.