Before you can consistently be in the moment with your kids, before you can appreciate the precious details and small treasures of their lives and your lives together—before, that is, you can achieve a level of day-to-day mindfulness—there’s something you and those around you need: sleep. Sleeping is one of the easiest (and most effective) things we can do for our health and general well-being, and yet so many of us act like sleep is a luxury we often can’t afford. Parents especially seem to pay the steepest price, due to the unpredictable sleep patterns of children. But what exactly is the cost of sleep loss to a family? And what are the benefits of good rest?
The National Sleep Foundation’s most recent Sleep in America poll found that only 10 percent of American adults prioritize sleep over other aspects of their daily life—including fitness, nutrition, work, hobbies, and social life. A prevalent attitude among people seems to be that we can catch up on sleep another time, take a nap the next day, or bank hours of sleep over the weekend. But sleep is not an investment that builds over time; rather, the deposits and withdrawals are made daily, and the truth is that if you don’t snooze, you will lose.
And that loss can be significant: “When people get less than six hours a night as their norm, it’s associated with lower immunity response, higher cardiovascular incidents, higher rates of metabolic syndrome; it impacts our hormones, and leads to cognitive dysfunction,” says Michelle Drerup, Psy.D., director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. She reveals that the latest research shows a potential link between lack of zzz’s and dementia, because sleep can remove beta-amyloid—a toxic protein linked to Alzheimer’s—from the brain. That protein has been found to be higher in those who get less sleep. Most studies tend to look at sleep deprivation as opposed to sleep loss (as in staying awake for 31 hours straight). “Although these findings do not provide that sleep deprivation causes Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Drerup. “They highlight the importance of sleep to optimize brain health.”
Sleep deprivation certainly takes a toll on children, as any parent who has experienced the mood swings and the, uh, determined behavior of an underslept child can attest. “We typically pay attention to a child’s daytime functions but often overlook what is happening in the child’s body during sleep at night, yet what really happens in sleep is what dictates daytime behavior and function,” says Suresh Kotagal, M.D., a child neurologist and a pediatric sleep specialist at the Mayo Clinic. In school-age children especially, Dr. Kotagal says, insufficient or disruptive sleep will cause their frontal lobes to not work as well. Frontal-lobe function impacts not only mood but also attention and concentration. He sees many children in their sleep clinics with a diagnosis of possible attention deficit disorder, but what the child ultimately needs is to get “good quality sleep.” Even among children who are accurately diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Dr. Kotagal often finds an additional sleep disorder; if the disorder is successfully treated, the child may experience incremental improvement in daytime alertness and concentration.
Babies and toddlers have their own nuances around sleep patterns. Sally L. Davidson Ward, M.D., division head for pediatric pulmonology and sleep medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, says infants tend to become sleep-deprived due to illness. That makes for a generally cranky infant. Toddlers, Dr. Davidson Ward adds, might manifest their sleep deprivation by being more prone to oppositional behavior. In other words, without proper sleep patterns, the “terrible twos” could be even more terrible.
Sleep loss and parenthood seem to go hand in hand. How often have you heard new parents say they had no understanding of the true definition of tired until being faced with nighttime feedings and not being able to get their infants to drift off? While some of the war stories relayed by exhausted new parents are amusing—say, a mother on maternity leave who gets fully dressed to go to work and even goes out to her car before remembering she is still on leave—the reality of the effects of lack of sleep for new parents is less funny. Dr. Drerup points out that not only can sleep deprivation cause new parents to be more forgetful about things like when they last changed the baby’s diaper, it may also increase the risk of depression for postpartum mothers.
The practical applications of not getting enough sleep can have consequences. The National Sleep Foundation reports that severe sleep deprivation can have similar effects on your body as drinking alcohol. People who are awake for 18 hours straight drive like they have a blood-alcohol content level of .05. (The legal level of intoxication for drivers in the U.S. is .08.)
Across the board, not getting enough sleep can be a detriment to your family’s health, safety, and relationships. At the very least, if you’re foggy because you didn’t sleep well, chances are you’re not going to be present for the everyday. Any parent who for whatever reason missed a first smile, word, step, or other milestone can tell you how important mindfulness and being in the moment is in parenting. And any parent who’s ever lost her temper because she’s cranky from lack of sleep knows that gut-punch feeling of guilt after snapping at her children.
Making sure that your (and your family’s) sleep habits don’t detract from your health and wellness is not as easy as just hitting the hay more. Following the popular advice “Sleep when the baby sleeps” is rarely that simple, especially with a newborn. We all know the drill: You nurse the baby to sleep, but when you go to put her back in her bassinet or crib, she wakes up and can’t fall asleep again until you nurse her or rock her, creating a vicious cycle that results in exhaustion for you and for your infant.
“Imagine if you fell asleep in your bed but you woke up in the car in your garage—what would happen? You would be very distraught, scared, and worried,” explains Dr. Davidson Ward. “That’s what’s happening to your baby every time they wake up in the crib. They don’t know where they are, because that’s not where they fell asleep.”She goes on to explain that you want your baby to fall asleep in the “desired sleep environment”—say, her crib or bassinet—and that you want to put them down when they’re drowsy but not yet asleep.
With toddlers and school-age children, the biggest issue is often getting them to go to sleep. How many times has your child begged you for another story or suddenly had the thirst of a water-deprived camel right before it’s time for bed? Dr. Davidson Ward describes it as the “curtain call,” and says that a predictable routine, verging on boring, done at the same time every night, could help your child avoid behavioral insomnia. “The routines around bedtime have to be for a finite period of time, 20 to 30 minutes maximum. If we keep talking to the child over and over again, what happens is sometimes children actually get excited and activated. Then they cannot sleep at all,” Dr. Kotagal says.In other words, right before bed is not the time for a pajama dance party or a rousing game of Chutes and Ladders. It’s easy to fall into the “wear them out and they’ll sleep better” trap—after all, it sounds logical. But too much physical activity, just like too much mental stimulation, can have the
opposite effect and invigorate the child.
A good, common routine might simply involve a bedtime story (singular) and a lullaby, but this can also be a time to teach a child about meditation and conscious breathing. That may help them fall asleep while also having the potential added benefit of relieving stress or anxiety. Of course, it’s not easy to get little ones to sit still, let alone to focus on something as mundane as breathing. Still, give this simple exercise a try: Start by asking your child to lie down, close her eyes, and breathe normally. Ask her to pay attention to all the parts of her body that move as she breathes. Then ask her to place one hand on her chest and the other on her stomach. Explain that when she inhales through her nose, the hand on her stomach will move upward while the hand on her chest will remain still. Tell her to inhale for four seconds and then hold that breath for four seconds. Then instruct your child to exhale, feeling the hand on her stomach move downward. Once she gets the hang of it, lie next to her and do the breathing exercises together for five minutes. Just make sure you leave your child’s bedroom before they (and/or you) fall asleep.
For both parents and children, one of the key components to ensuring proper sleep is diet. Since carbohydrates burn quickly, eating a heavily carb-based dinner or giving your child carb-based snacks before bedtime will almost guarantee that they become hungry again within a couple of hours—possibly after they’ve fallen asleep. Instead, advises Georgia Ede, M.D., a nutrition consultant and a psychiatrist, a whole-foods diet with adequate protein and fat will go a long way toward facilitating better sleep for the entire family.“Foods that are easiest for most people to digest are meat, seafood, poultry, fruit, and most seeded vegetables,” Dr. Ede says. “Foods that are easy to digest are unlikely to cause heartburn or indigestion symptoms that can interfere with sleep quality.”For snack-loving children, Dr. Ede suggests that a piece of fruit, carrot sticks with almond butter, and cucumber slices with guacamole will do your child and his sleep a much better service than processed snacks with refined carbohydrates.
What we eat, though, is not the only connection to better sleep. How we eat can also have a great impact. Small steps toward mindful eating, such as having dinner together at a table and not in front of a television, can help avoid distraction and, consequently, overeating. Paying attention to how our food tastes and smells while taking time with a meal or a snack can also help our bodies register when they’re full. Mindfulness during mealtimes can go a long way in getting the most mileage from our fuel, giving us the quickest detour to a better night’s sleep.
A staple of parents’ diets usually involves some method of caffeine ingestion, but Dr. Drerup says that while one or two cups of coffee is usually fine for most people, because the “half-life of caffeine is about five to seven hours,” noon or early afternoon is usually a good cutoff. If you still experience the mid- to late- afternoon slump, she recommends taking a walk outside instead of going to Starbucks for a venti never-gonna-sleepuccino. Exposure to natural light can help alertness, and a quick walk will give you a much needed boost of energy afterward. The National Sleep Foundation says that as little as ten minutes of aerobic exercise can also
“dramatically improve the quality of your night-time sleep.”
Another key component to getting a high-quality night’s sleep for the entire family is minimizing screen time, especially before bed. Experts agree that cutting off screen time at least an hour before bedtime is ideal. Dr. Kotagal explains that screen light suppresses the natural sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, not to mention that whatever is being watched might also be mentally activating for both children and adults.
Temperature can also be a factor in getting a good night’s sleep. While babies and children tend to sleep better in the low 70s, the ideal temperature for adult bedrooms veers cooler, hovering in the low 60s, according to Dr. Drerup. Per Dr. Kotagal, there is some research that suggests that because of the body’s natural gradient temperature, the temperature at an infant’s feet should be lower than the temperature around her abdomen, which is naturally higher. Parents might think it’s best to bundle infants in both socks and a heavier sleep sack, but that could make it harder for babies to fall asleep by artificially preventing heat loss from the infant’s body.
No matter what steps you take to help you and your family invest in better sleep, remember that sleep health is a significant part of a much larger overall picture, which is why Dr. Davidson Ward likes to ask her patients what they do for fun: “I think the pillars of good health are healthy nutrition, healthy exercise, a good night’s sleep, and doing something that you are passionate about or love every day. All these things are achievable for most families.” You just need to put your minds to it. *
This article originally appeared in Parents: The Mindful Life available at retailers and on Amazon.