Before my son was born more than five years ago, I thought I was prepared for every aspect of parenting.
I plowed through piles of parenting books. I researched the safest infant seats, cribs and swings, and stocked up on sleepers, diapers and wipes.
But I never anticipated the exhaustion that goes hand-in-hand with parenting a newborn. As my son didn't sleep through the night until well after his first birthday, I found that walking around in a fog became my new normal.
Even now with two children, I crave the days (or rather, nights) when I slept soundly-all night long. If this sounds like you, you're not alone. According to the National Sleep Foundation, women are more likely to experience insomnia than men, and they're also more likely to have daytime sleepiness. That's bad enough, but sleep isn't a luxury-it's critical for both physical and emotional health.
No, you can't do much about a teething baby or a 9-year-old who's up all night with the flu, but you can make sleep a priority. Better-quality sleep-and enough of it-will improve your outlook, mood and overall health.
Researchers don't know exactly why sleep is so critical to good health. But it's during sleep that a variety of essential functions occur, including growth and maintenance of the body's tissues, regulating immune function and suppressing the production of stress hormones.
"Sleep is as important to us as oxygen," says sleep expert Timothy H. Monk, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. "When we get too much of it, there's probably a problem, and when we get too little, there's a problem."
Lack of sleep causes setbacks in three different areas, says Dr. Jonathan Warren, a specialist in sleep medicine in the northwest suburbs.
"The principal problem with not getting enough sleep is the safety issue," Warren says. "People fall asleep at the wheel or get injured on the job. ... Auto accident rates are higher with people who get little sleep or little 'quality' sleep."
Then there's how lack of sleep affects your day-to-day life. When people don't get enough sleep, they don't exercise as often and they're tired and moody; as a result, their relationships with those close to them are affected. In addition, their thought processes may not be as clear as usual, and depression and anxiety can develop, says Warren.
But in addition to the safety and quality-of-life issues, there are health matters to consider.
"Sleep deprivation has been associated with different health problems, depending on the age group," says Warren. In children, sleep deprivation is associated with ADD and ADHD, poor school performance and behavioral issues. In adults, lack of quality sleep is linked with cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes and impaired immune system function. New studies also suggest it makes you more likely to gain weight and may make it harder to control diabetes.
So we need to sleep-that's clear.
Yet the 2010 Sleep in America poll, conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, found only about 40 percent of Americans are getting a good night's sleep most nights-and that means 60 percent of us aren't sleeping well the majority of the time. While sleep needs vary, 30 percent of us get fewer than six hours of sleep/night, far short of what most people need for overall health and productivity.
"Sleep should be something you do, and something you plan for and something you take seriously," says Monk. "(But) very often sleep is the poor cousin that gets neglected. If the doctor says you should get more exercise, you'll tend to listen … yet even when you have a lot of responsibilities, you have to be sensible about giving yourself enough time to sleep. Very few people can get by on less than six hours of sleep on a regular basis."
So how can you get more, and better quality, sleep? Start by making it a priority. That may mean cutting back on your favorite late-night TV shows (or TiVo-ing them to watch later) or going to bed without finishing a stack of chores. Start looking at sleep as not something you must do, but as an investment in your health, your mood, your productivity, your energy level and your relationship with your children.
How much sleep you need will depend on a number of factors, including your age, overall health, activity level and diet. The average adult needs seven hours and 24 minutes to function optimally-most adults need between seven and nine hours-but some need less and some need more.
Once you've decided to make sleep a priority, set the stage for getting it.
"Just as someone would prepare for exercise by buying new running shoes, you should prepare for sleep," says Monk. "Bedtime should be a time that you prepare your mind and body so you can sleep well. That may be relaxing or reading a book-you won't sleep well if you're worrying."
To fall asleep more quickly and get better quality sleep:
Create a sleep habit by going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends. Sleeping in on a Sunday morning may feel wonderful, but it's likely to make it harder to fall asleep that night.
If you use your bed as a second office, stop-take your laptop out of your bedroom. Your bed should be a respite from the world and should be used for sleep (and sex) only.
Exercise regularly-the more active you are, the more likely you are to sleep well. But don't work out for the two hours before bedtime, which can interfere with falling asleep, Monk says.
Make your bedroom conducive to sleep by keeping it quiet, cool and dark. Warm temperatures, noise and bright lights all interfere with your body's ability to stay asleep.
Avoid caffeine after 4 p.m., says Monk. And while drinking alcohol may make you feel drowsy, too much can affect the quality of your sleep.
Have a relaxing snack before bed. Your mom may have been onto something when she suggested a glass of warm milk. A plain cookie or bowl of cereal before bed helps you sleep through the night.
How do you know that you're getting enough sleep? When you awake feeling rested and stay alert throughout the day. However, if you've tried to sleep better and are failing, or notice symptoms of a sleep disorder (like daytime sleepiness, episodes when you stop breathing, snoring or abnormal sleep behaviors), contact a doctor or sleep specialist.
I've found that regular workouts and a regular sleep schedule (forget the late-night talk shows!) help me get the sleep I need. As a busy mom with two kids and a career, I definitely need it!
Kelly James-Enger sleeps well most nights, except when her kindergartner decides he wants to cuddle at 3 a.m. Fortunately, her baby girl sleeps for 12 hours at a stretch.