Cassidy Phan welcomed her second daughter into the world and bid adieu to a good night’s sleep for the next 13 months all on the same day. She was only sleeping in small spurts lasting a few hours. On a good night, the Garland mom logged a whopping three hours in a row before her baby woke up to nurse. It didn’t take long for other areas of her life to suffer.
“I couldn’t recall simple words or follow a conversation,” Phan says. “Emotionally, I didn’t possess the ability to put any energy into my relationships and totally neglected my husband.”
“I would nap in the sick room or even in my car on my lunch hour,” she says. She also got in the habit of calling her mom on her evening commute to help keep her awake.
A study released earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that Phan’s plight isn’t unusual. More than 30 percent of married women with children at home do not get sufficient sleep each night, and nearly 45 percent of single moms fall short of the recommended seven hours (at least) of sleep each night.
“I knew going without sleep wasn’t going to last forever,” Phan says, so she ignored the advice of her OB/GYN and her daughter’s pediatrician, both of whom suggested she stop breast-feeding so her husband could help out at night. “I was very protective of that time with my daughter,” she adds.
Dr. Raj Kakar, medical director of Dallas Sleep, which has clinics throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, says those who get insufficient sleep on a regular basis are at risk for the effects of chronic sleep deprivation.
“A lack of proper sleep can lead to weight gain and obesity, memory problems, loss of attention and focus, serious health issues, and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression,” he says.
U.S. health officials warn that sleep-deprived people are at a greater risk for heart disease and diabetes. Plus, cognitive functions drastically decrease — including the ability to work toward goals (even the mundane like getting dinner on the table), solve problems and regulate emotions.
Lack of sleep also causes irritability and moodiness and affects your ability to reason and use good judgment. Fatigue slows reaction time too and is to blame for up to 6,000 fatal car crashes in the United States each year.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the amount of sleep we need varies by age, but most adults between the ages of 26 and 64 need between seven and nine hours of shut-eye each night. How can you tell if you’re getting a sufficient night’s sleep?
“You should fall asleep easily and wake refreshed,” says Dr. David Luterman, medical director of the Sleep Center at Baylor Dallas. "If you get a good night's sleep, you should be able to wake up without an alarm."
Unfortunately, we also live in a culture where being able to “function” on little sleep is worn like a badge of honor. Some view slumber as time wasted and a loss of productivity. But sleep researchers agree that sufficient sleep is a necessity for psychological and biological health, giving our brains time to rest and repair.
Unlike our lymphatic systems, which have built-in drainage systems for removing cellular waste, the brain has a unique glymphatic system for flushing out toxins. In fact, the protein responsible for the plaque buildup in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients is removed in considerably higher quantities during sleep.
While the human body remains fairly immobile during sleep, the brain remains active, strengthening existing pathways and building new ones that help with concentration, memory and reaction time.
Richardson mom Amanda Roberts says her poor sleep habits began right after the birth of her first child.
“I slept fine during pregnancy, but I’ve been on high alert ever since I had kids,” she says. Her days are busy parenting five children — from a toddler to teens — with the help of her husband, Chris. Roberts says racing thoughts keep her from falling asleep and she wakes often throughout the night. “I consider my not sleeping as the way life is right now,” she concedes, “but I wake up tired every day.”
She doesn’t deny that her restless nights affect her family life. “Chris encourages me to take naps on the weekend,” Roberts says, “and I appreciate that he’s interested in my well-being, but in a way, I think he’s mostly looking for an excuse since I’m short-tempered.” At times she will slip away to lie down but says, “It just seems impractical at times to walk away from things that need to be done. And if I have time to myself, I’d rather spend it doing something leisurely.”
So what can we do to ensure we get more sleep? Ask nearly any parent what they’d like more of, and most answer more hours in a day. Since that’s not going to happen, experts offer a few suggestions to make sure you’re not shortchanging your slumber.
Cut yourself some slack
“You have to accept there are certain things you cannot do,” says Luterman, who recalls when he and his wife had twins while he was a first-year resident. “My wife took the first feeding; I took the second.” Schedules are crucial. “Sleep has to become a priority and is scheduled just as diligently as other commitments. It’s not catch-as-catch-can.”
During Phan’s sleep deprivation period, she struggled to keep up with her share of the household responsibilities and recalls her husband taking on the majority of the housework.
“We fought a lot that year,” she shares. “His biggest issue was my wanting to go out with friends when I wasn’t doing my share of the chores.” Thankfully, Phan’s mom lives close by and came over often to help out.
But for some moms, breaks are few and far between, and night after night of insufficient sleep takes a weighty toll. Without a support system — an understanding spouse, a helpful family member or compassionate friends — it’s easy for moms to feel desperate for a light at the end of a dark but sleepless tunnel.
Single mom Patty Wonder in Flower Mound has a limited support system, plus the stress of financial concerns and working two jobs, all of which have put her drastically in debt to her sleep account. As a former flight attendant who already had erratic career-related sleep habits, Wonder has now developed major sleep issues.
“I have had mornings where I had to ask someone to take my daughter to school because I was afraid I might fall asleep while driving,” she admits.
During one stretch of getting only two to four hours of sleep at night (after starting a new job), Wonder’s health suffered.
“My immune system was toast,” she recalls. “I got the flu and came down with pneumonia, but my doctor never attributed it to my lack of sleep.” So she pushed through that spell and caught naps when she could. “Now I nap only when I’m at my wits’ end.”
The parenting job alone is hard enough. Doing it on little sleep day after day? That’s a herculean task. Some days, just focus on the basics, give the kids cereal for dinner and ignore the dishes in the sink.
“I tell parents you have to apply the oxygen mask mentality,” says Dr. Don Watenpaugh, director of Sleep Consultants, Inc., in Fort Worth. “When you’re on a plane, they instruct you to put your mask on before assisting a child, and the same theory applies to your health. If Mom doesn’t put herself first, she can’t take care of others.”
Some parents forget how much sleep they’re actually missing. Five or six hours a night and lots of yawning at work becomes the new normal. But it is possible to catch up on sleep.
"Taking short naps are better than long ones," Luterman explains."It’s hard to wake up after getting into a deep sleep.”
Experts agree that working to sleep well at night is preferred to making accommodations for poor sleep. But there are two main obstacles to getting sufficient sleep: not making the time to go to bed and encountering poor sleep once you’re there.
Keeping everyone in the family on a consistent bedtime routine (yes, even you, Mom) is key to establishing a healthy sleep schedule. A family meeting helps determine what activities in the day can be changed or eliminated to allow for an earlier bedtime for all. Ideally, children — including teens — should be in bed at least an hour before the adults.
“Relaxing an hour before bed helps to clear the mind and allow the body to slow down,” Kakar says. “You should also minimize the amount of time spent in the bedroom when you’re not sleeping.”
Laptops, TVs, smartphones and tablets should be kept out of the bedroom and off two hours prior to bed. Research shows that screen time slows the release of melatonin, a key hormone that tells the body it’s nighttime and helps make you sleepy.
Change up daily habits. Avoid big meals in the evening … and alcohol. That red wine nightcap you swear helps you relax actually increases blood sugar levels and amps you up. Don’t drink caffeinated beverages after 2pm either.
“Caffeine increases your adrenal function and takes about six to eight hours to leave your system,” says Dr. Ruben St. Laurent, director of Pro Neuro Health, which provides neurological chiropractic care, in Flower Mound.
Also, avoid over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids if possible.
“The mechanism of a sleeping pill is to put you into a hypnotic state and is meant to be a temporary fix,” St. Laurent says. “Long-term use of sleep aids can inhibit your body’s ability to fall asleep on its own.”
Tune in to yourself
Ideally, moms should try to identify their unique sleep inhibitors. If, like Roberts, you struggle to turn off the brain and clear your mind at night, jotting down thoughts and worries in a journal before bed allows your mind to release those concerns.
If a bed partner disrupts your slumber — a snoring spouse, a child who won’t stay in her own bed or a constantly moving four-legged companion — it’s time to get territorial and demand a better sleeping arrangement. Communicate frustrations and determine a plan to take back the night.
Consult a doctor if you think your sleep problems might be caused by a medical condition. He or she might recommend a sleep study or bloodwork. Cognitive therapy is known to help chronic insomnia, and sleep apnea can be corrected by a sleep specialist — and an oral device worn at night.
Still others find thyroid dysfunction to cause restless nights. “Your thyroid stimulates other glands to produce serotonin and dopamine,” St. Laurent explains. “Without those, you lose the ability to calm down, focus and pay attention.”
Wonder shared her sleep struggles with another mom who suggested that it might be hormone-related. “A woman’s changing hormones can affect sleep and cause insomnia or excessive sleeping,” Kakar says.
After bloodwork confirmed perimenopause, Wonder tried hormone therapy. “For the first time in years, I was able to sleep,” she says.
Other nonmedicinal sleep aids include meditation, prayer and stretching exercises such as yoga (see sidebar). But if you find that sleep evades you despite your best efforts to harness a good sequence of continuous slumber, talk to a doctor.
Because no matter why it happens, long-term sleep deprivation remains counterproductive for good parenting.
After enduring more than a year of sleep deprivation, Phan says she’s very possessive of her sleep today and credits the more than seven hours a night she gets with her memory improvement, loss of irritability, even a better complexion. “I had never been obsessed with sleep like I am now,” she admits. “And I still take naps on the weekends.”