No one needs to tell you that you're sleep deprived. But Gallup research shows that moms with at least one child under age 5 also face a daunting daytime "rest deficit." That's essentially the notion of powering through life as a perpetual mothering machine with zero time to relax, and April Lisante, of Philadelphia, can relate. With a mixed set of 4-year-old twins, a 12-year-old daughter, and a busy career as a writer who works from home, Lisante says her most indulgent slice of "me time" is a weekly detour to the organic body-care aisle at the supermarket on Mondays.
Monday is her husband's usual day off (he's a chef), and the household grocery run is the one stretch of time all week when Lisante is, blissfully, alone... albeit for an errand. So, really, who can blame her for lingering? "I look at the soaps. I try the lotions. It's so pathetic," she says. This probably sounds familiar to you. In the Gallup research, moms reported getting substantially less rest than any other group in the survey, including today's dads.
That rest deficit is bad news for your health. Sleeping too few hours at night and not pausing for sanity breaks during the day can lead to everything from acne flare-ups to weight gain to panic attacks. We know what you're thinking: "I have no time to rest!" But we've come up with a realistic recovery plan, based on the latest research.
Send Your Mind Wandering
Psychology professor Lila Davachi, Ph.D., and her colleagues at New York University's Center for Neural Science found that people who close their eyes for eight minutes and let their mind wander show measurable brain activity in the area where long-term memories are formed. While her research is too preliminary to show that daytime rest definitely helps memory, she suspects that it functions, to a lesser degree, in the way that sleeping at night etches daytime experiences into our brain.
Instead of going straight to Facebook or the laundry room when you put your child down to nap, make it a daily habit to lie down for about ten minutes with your eyes closed. Or let yourself daydream briefly during your lunch break at work. (Pretend you're reading. And wear headphones to deter intruders while your mind drifts along to soothing classical music or the restful sound of silence.) Of course, full-fledged naps definitely improve memory, Dr. Davachi says. If you're among the lucky few with the time and ability to actually pull one off, go for it.
Dr. Davachi tries to lie down every evening to relax for a few minutes after her children, ages 3 and 1, go to sleep. She uses the break, she says, to segue from working-mother mode and "reclaim part of myself." In the daytime, she often walks along a riverside path for 40 minutes to clear her head. "I also like to put my feet up and simply look out my window."
Hard-charging business consultants who take "predictable time off" from their 65-hour workweeks actually accomplish more -- not less, found a recent study by Harvard Business School professor Leslie A. Perlow, Ph.D. Consultants in one group had to skip a full workday each week, while those in other groups had to unplug from work completely for one weeknight, beginning at 6 P.M.
Initially, they balked. These are dedicated businesspeople who spend 20 to 25 hours weekly monitoring their BlackBerry, in addition to their hard-core work schedule. But over time, productivity went up in both groups -- in part because the consultants had to collaborate better with coworkers to plan for the mini sabbaticals -- and they told Dr. Perlow they felt more satisfied with their job. Sure, this research was conducted on people in the workplace, but it sends the message that you can find time to rest: Make the time, and you'll become more efficient in order to compensate.
Predictable time off from motherhood can be something as simple as a half-hour soak in the tub on a designated weeknight, with the bathroom door locked and your partner patrolling the perimeter. But once you schedule your retreat, follow through. Dr. Perlow forced the consultants to take their breaks despite fleeting crises that inevitably arose. The result? "People came to recognize that the 24/7 mentality could be broken," she reports. This can apply to all of us, no matter how we spend our days.
What could be more relaxing than a marathon session of cheesy TV? Any number of things, finds new research about mental fatigue. "People may think watching TV is relaxing, but it actually seems not to be," says psychologist Marc G. Berman, Ph.D., of the Rotman Research Institute, in Toronto. Anything that demands your mind's attention will mentally tire you out, even if you're enjoying it. And yet it turns out that feeling bored also exhausts our brain. What's genuinely restful and restorative, according to studies in cognitive psychology, are soothing but interesting activities like envisioning ocean waves, preferably in solitude so your thoughts can wander.
When your brain is fried, try taking a quiet walk. In a landmark study that Dr. Berman conducted at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, volunteers were invited to stroll through an arboretum and also to walk along the more chaotic city streets. When walking through nature, the participants' short-term memory improved by 20 percent. But when they were in an urban setting, volunteers showed no consistent improvement, possibly because distractions like crosswalks kept their mind on high alert.
My mantra when my boys were toddlers came from a New Yorker cartoon posted on my refrigerator: In a disheveled living room, an unkempt woman is lounging on the couch and talking on the phone. "I'm running a loose ship," she says.
You don't want to totally let things go, of course, but relaxing your standards can be healthy for a mom with young children. Your hands are simply too full to keep things in tight-ship shape, explains Parents advisor Alice Domar, Ph.D., executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health, in Waltham, Massachusetts. "If you can get yourself showered and keep your baby fed and in diapers, you're doing well. You have to lower the bar."
Exhausted moms who can't finish the tasks on their daily to-do list might consider breaking it into two lists, Dr. Domar says: one for genuine "must-do's" -- like buying diapers -- and another "would like to do" list, encompassing everything else. You can immediately move your daily laundry load off the "must" list, since slacking on this won't actually harm anyone. (If keeping a spotless house feels like a must for your own sense of sanity, delegate specific parts of the job to your spouse.) Most shopping trips aren't a must, either. "For a few years, life is not going to be how it used to be," says Dr. Domar, coauthor of Live a Little! Breaking the Rules Won't Break Your Health.
What should be on the must list? Aim for one "you" task for each sizable "everybody-else" errand. Things that sustain you personally are vital to your health and well-being, Dr. Domar says. So you may start with "Schedule dentist appointments for kids," but the next item should say "Call a friend." And don't forget exercise: One study at Duke University Medical Center showed that moderate aerobic exercise could be as effective as the antidepressant Zoloft.
Of course, it's nighttime sleep that's the great refresher. Without enough of it, we're prone to colds and other infections, high blood pressure, and mood disorders, says Allison Siebern, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center. Fortunately, we're able to recover from sleep deprivation without needing to make up every lost hour.
The bad news is that we're also hardwired with a primitive arousal system that can interrupt our sleep when we have offspring to protect. This is partly why it can be devilishly hard to fall back to sleep after those offspring call out from their room at 3 a.m. for a glass of water.
Turn your alarm clock to face the wall so that you'll stop keeping track of the sleep you're losing. And try this strategy: First, get as comfortable as you can. Then, to quiet your mind, try breathing in deeply for a count of 4, holding for a count of 7, and exhaling for a count of 8, Dr. Siebern says. "Do that for a few minutes, then focus on your breathing without trying to change it." You'll slow down your heart rate and breathing, which should help you rest and be in a relaxed state while you wait to drift back off. If you're finding that wee-hour broadcasts from the baby monitor wake you, adjust the volume so that you'll hear it only when the baby actually needs you -- not when she's just rustling around in dreamland.
For insomnia that persists beyond a few weeks and affects how you function by day, consider a very short course (four to six one-hour sessions) of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTi) with a certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist. You'll learn to change habits and attitudes that can interfere with sleep, including the notion that we all need eight hours of shut-eye. We don't, and it's common for insomniacs to underestimate the amount of sleep they're getting. A good counselor can help you put your sleep numbers in perspective, which is one of CBTi's surprisingly effective strategies for easing insomnia. Find a specialist at sleepcenters.org.
With both sleep deprivation and daytime rest deficits, it helps to keep a long view. By 9 months, most babies sleep through the night. And the Gallup research finds a big jump in moms' R&R once their youngest child is 5.
"Five. Okay," sighs Lisante, now on constant alert as one of her 4-year-olds steamrolls his way through an aggressive stage. She perseveres with the benefit of hindsight. After all, she's been there, done that, and staggered to the other side of the rest-deficit divide when her older daughter was the twins' age. "I'm waiting for that."
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Parents magazine.