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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceThe danger when parents don't get enough sleep — Good Parenting

The danger when parents don’t get enough sleep — Good Parenting

Dr. Debbie,

We’re still struggling with our toddler daughter’s possible Night Terrors and while it doesn’t seem to affect her daytime functioning at all, my husband and I are definitely suffering from lack of sleep. Your piece on Sleep Science clarified the “fuzzy feeling” we experience but nonetheless we’re still fuzzy.

We do our best with easy-to-remember routines to avoid grocery and laundry emergencies, and try to keep consistent with house rules for our almost 5-year-old. Patience is indeed a virtue my husband and I strive for, with each other and with the children. Beyond that, work, school, friends and family test every ounce of strength we have left. Just in case our daughter’s issues don’t resolve themselves soon, what damage can we expect from our own excessive sleep deprivation?

Awake and Exhausted

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Dear Awake and Exhausted,

Adequate sleep is essential for life, just as food is. You can get by with a low ration or poor quality of sleep, however the better you sleep, the better your body and brain will function. “Sleep debt” is how sleep researchers refer to an ongoing pattern of insufficient sleep.

At various ages the human body has been observed to function best when it gets a specified quantity of uninterrupted sleep timed within the 24-hour rhythm of daylight. Adults should be getting about eight hours at night. Similar to ideal nutrition, a body can make up for less-than-best habits with boosting high quality sleep (or nutrition) after a temporary lapse. But constant inadequacies, despite attempts to counteract with “make-up sleep,” can take their toll. The lasting effects of long-term sleep deprivation, just as for long-term nutritional deficits, are hard to erase.

The Need for ZZZ’s

Sleep science research has connected chronic sleep loss with risks of obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and immune system impairment. To confirm this knowledge, sleep debt was studied in a sample group of students at the University of Chicago who slept only four hours a night for six consecutive days. The study observed health effects on the students including “higher blood pressure and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and they produced only half the usual number of antibodies to a flu vaccine. The sleep-deprived students also showed signs of insulin resistance — a condition that is the precursor of type 2 diabetes and metabolic slowdown.” Fortunately for the students, the study didn’t go past one week and, “All the changes were reversed when the students made up the hours of sleep they had lost.”

You may be familiar with the documentary film “Super Size Me” by Morgan Spurlock. His one-month experiment with exclusively eating at a fast food restaurant alarmed the medical advisors on his team. Some of his nutrition-related ills from this brave experiment were deemed irreversible. Similarly, the health issues associated with insufficient sleep habits have the serious potential to reduce one’s quality and length of life.

Resolving Your Sleep Debt

The mental benefits of sleep are likewise affected by sleep deprivation. It may be well worth the effort to find ways to catch up on sleep during this challenging phase of parenting. Even a short nap or meditation break can restore mental clarity and a better mood, even if only for a few hours. While it would be impractical to keep an actual log of each hour lost, try to plan for your daughter to have an occasional night with a sitter as well as for the family to have a loose enough weekend schedule such that one or both parents can sleep in and or catch a nap with one or both children.

Harvard Medical School studied “paying back” sleep debt with a group of nine adults over three weeks of a grueling schedule of being awake for 33 hours straight, then sleeping for 10. This simulates the sleep habits of the 16 percent of Americans, as reported by the National Sleep Foundation, who sleep six or fewer hours a night (parents of young children among them).

The lead author of the study, Dr. Daniel A. Cohen says, “the brain literally keeps track of how long we’ve been asleep and awake — for weeks.”

The subjects were given a reaction time test on the computer. Each 10-hour rest period, after losing a full night’s sleep, boosted test performance. Cohen concluded, “Even though people were staying awake for almost 33 hours, when they had the opportunity to sleep for 10 hours, their performance shortly after waking was back to normal. … The really interesting finding here is that there’s a short-term aspect of sleep loss that can be made up relatively quickly, within a long night.”

Big Picture Problems

But the days and weeks of lost sleep affected the subjects beyond the initial three weeks. The research team knew from previous studies that reaction times of individuals awake for 24 hours straight deteriorate to the point where they are comparable to the reaction times of individuals who are legally drunk.

In follow-up experiments after the initial three weeks of chronic sleep loss, and following a period of healthy sleep habits, the subjects of Cohen’s study were tested for reaction times after pulling an all-nighter. The result was that a level of severe impairment was reached faster — after just 18 hours awake as compared to 24 hours. It takes less time to lose functionality when the brain has suffered, and not made up for, sleep loss in the past.

One of the problems with finding ways to improve one’s sleep is that the sleep-deprived, much like the alcohol-impaired, are not readily aware of their state. Nor are they good at coming up with effective solutions when mental capacities are diminished.

If you are not sure if you or the parents you know are suffering from sleep debt, Elizabeth Klerman, another sleep science expert, provides a picture of the well-rested:

  1. sleeps the same amount on work/school days and non-work/school days
  2. awakens without an alarm clock
  3. does not use caffeine or other stimulants to remain awake or substances to fall asleep
  4. does not fall asleep within five minutes at night
  5. does not fall asleep in non-stimulating conditions (e.g., when a passenger in a car)
  6. is generally healthy (not fighting cold after cold)

Even missing one piece in this picture could indicate the body and brain haven’t gotten their sleep needs satisfied.

Other societies seem to respect the importance of sleep with such notions as the afternoon siesta, long periods of government-supported parental leave from work, and/or family and friend networks that share the care of the children, day and night.

Well rested parents are better at parenting.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]

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