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Why is Sleep So Important?



Sleep has always been, and will likely continue to be, a bit of a mystery.


In an age where productivity is king, doesn't it seem a bit strange that we are still spending a third of each day just…sleeping?


It's because it's essential.


So essential that sleep deprivation has actually been used as a form of torture in interrogation situations (really, google it to see for yourself). There are serious physical and psychological side effects to being denied sleep.


Thankfully we have never encountered that type of forced sleep deprivation. Only as a product of our role as parents.


The scientific community hasn’t been able to tell us exactly why we sleep, but there is definitely a consensus that adequate sleep is good for you for lots of reasons. Here are a few:


Learning

We’re all familiar with the fact that we have a hard time focusing on information when we’re running on too little sleep. Absorbing information is only half the battle though. Actually, if you really want to get technical, it’s only a third. Learning and memory are divided into three functions: acquisition, consolidation, and recall.


Basically, you need to receive the info, then you need to stabilize the memory of it, and finally, you need to be able to access it when you need it.


Acquisition and recall only take place while you’re awake.


Consolidation, on the other hand, “takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. The overall evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for learning and memory.”(1)


So even if you manage to focus on what you’re learning and acquire the information, without sleep, that information won’t be properly stored in the brain, and when called upon to access it, you’ll find yourself drawing a blank.


This is proof that mom brain is real! When we are functioning on a lack of sleep, we simply can’t remember things like we used to.


For our kids, learning is their primary responsibility for the first 18-20 years of their lives, so considering how much they need to retain, the importance of a healthy sleep schedule is hard to overstate.


Mood

We all know that when we don’t get enough sleep, we get short-tempered and irritable.


A study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who experienced even partial sleep deprivation reported feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion. (2)


This isn’t exactly new information. We’re all aware that we get emotional in very negative ways when we’re running on too little sleep, but why?


Again, it’s a bit of a mystery, but some researchers have suggested that sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala. That’s the little almond-shaped part of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of, among other things, anger and fear.


That activity in your brain triggers feelings that can lead to an overall sense of stress and hostility towards others. This is probably the reason why you lashed out at your husband this morning. The reason why our patience wears so thin with our toddler. We’re tired!


Health

We can see how getting enough sleep is essential to learning and emotional well-being, but what about some more tangible benefits?


Well, short of eating and breathing, you would be hard pressed to find anything with more health benefits than getting the adequate amount of sleep.


“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health. “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,”


People who regularly get between 7-9 hours of sleep see significantly lower rates of:

  • obesity

  • high blood pressure

  • stroke

  • infections

  • depression

  • diabetes

  • inflammation

  • hypertension

  • heart disease

  • heart attacks

  • heart failure

They also report higher satisfaction with their sex lives, better performance at work, and take fewer sick days than people who typically sleep less than 7 hours a night. (3)


So there’s no question that sleep, while it remains mysterious, is definitely as essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle.


But that all changes when you have a baby, right?


After you’ve brought a new life into this world you’re expected to sacrifice your sleep for a few years, maybe six or seven at the most, in order to respond to your baby at all times of day or night.


Right?


Wrong.


This is, in my mind, the most problematic myth of parenthood, and one that needs to be discredited.


Yes, your newborn will need to eat around the clock and you WILL be tired. But this stage may be much shorter than you’ve heard.


Remember this. Your baby needs sleep even more than you do.


Those little bodies may look like they’re idle when they sleep, but there’s an absolute frenzy of work going on behind the scenes. Growth hormones are being secreted to help baby gain weight and sprout up, cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies, all kinds of miraculous, intricate systems are at work laying the foundation for your baby’s growth and development, and they’ll continue to do so through adolescence, provided they’re given the opportunity to do so.


Our children’s bodies are designed to do this work on their own. All that’s required of your little one is to close their eyes and sleep. This being my field of expertise, I see a LOT of people telling new parents that babies just don’t sleep well, and that they should expect their little ones to be waking them up seven or eight times a night.


This advice is dangerous. Not only is it not true, but it may even prevent families from doing something about their child’s sleep struggles, and that’s a serious concern for everybody in the family.


Parents and kids alike need adequate sleep for all of the reasons I’ve listed above.


By the way, if your baby is eating 6 or 8 times each night, I promise you, they are not hungry. They are tired and that is the only way they know how to fall back asleep.


Try thinking of your child’s sleep struggles like you would an ear infection. It’s a health issue and it has a remedy. If anyone is telling you to just wait it out, they are not doing you any favors.


Accepting inadequate asleep in infancy leads to accepting it in adolescence, and eventually you end up with grown adults who don’t give sleep the priority it requires, and all of those serious health issues follow along with it.


So to every new mother out there, I implore you, don’t accept the idea of sleep as a luxury that you’re going to have to learn to live without for a few years. If your baby’s not sleeping, address it. It’s not selfish, it’s not unrealistic, it’s necessary, and the benefits are abundant.


Want to know if your baby is ready to drop their night feeds and how to do it? Check out this blog.



Endnotes

(1) Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, retrieved from healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/ healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory, December 18, 2007

(2) Sleep. 1997 Apr;20(4):267-77. Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night. Dinges DF1, Pack F, Williams K, Gillen KA, Powell JW, Ott GE, Aptowicz C, Pack AI.

(3) National Sleep Foundation, 2008 Sleep in America Poll, Summary of Findings retrieved from sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/2008%20POLL%20SOF.PDF