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Healthy Habits: Prioritizing Sleep

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A humorous look at the trials and tribulations of new parenthood

The past few months my house has been filled with zombies.  My three-year-old learned about zombies right around Halloween, and since then, as part of his bedtime routine, he has been inventing stories about them.  Zombies coughing. Zombies fighting. Zombies marching. Zombies fishing. And, of course, zombies eating brains.

I’m not sure why zombies appeal to him so much. Maybe it’s because they shuffle around and grunt. Maybe it’s because they are clumsy and silly-looking. Or maybe it’s because after his little brother arrived in late October, his mom turned into one.

My adorable newborn boy needs to eat every two to three hours, and as his brain grows, mine is increasingly taking on the consistency of apple sauce. His around-the-clock feeding schedule means that even on a good night, when he has consistent three-hour stretches of sleep, I still need to wake up around 11 pm, 2 am, and 5 am.  Sometimes the intervals are longer or shorter, but most nights, we’re talking two to three arousals.

And while, thankfully, my baby falls back to sleep easily, this is not the case for me. If I am up at 5:00am, I generally stay up. I feel fine in the early morning hours, and even at noon, but once we roll around to 3:00pm, I am in a serious fog, craving the brains I once had.

As a professor who writes papers, reads scientific articles, and analyzes data about sleep health, it is terrible not to have all my faculties.  And it is especially ironic that, for all of my scholarly efforts to identify factors associated with sleep deprivation, I am unable to get sufficient sleep myself.

Parenting is the ultimate reminder that even though we have idealized behavioral goals, there are usually difficult tradeoffs.  In this case, sleep cedes to my maternal instinct to keep my newborn well-fed.  I’m okay with this tradeoff for now.

But I also know that in other areas I should be making better decisions, like:

  • Hey, the baby is napping, why can’t I? My half-baked brain starts running down a list of things I need to accomplish while the baby is sleeping.  It’s a rare day that I feel I can squeeze in time for a nap even though I’m walking around like the living dead.
  • Oh yeah, if the baby goes to bed before 8:00pm, so should I.  Usually, I can do this, and I try to, since I’m sooo tired, but sometimes this is not an option I’m willing to accept.  Just last night while I was trying to fall asleep at 7:30pm, my older son came into the room and played a harmonica in my ear.  He had cast me in a production of “Peter Pan” (as Peter!) and, well, I felt I had little choice but to come downstairs and practice my flying skills.
  • Even when the baby is at daycare, which he recently started, sleeping feels like it violates some employment contract.  My family chose daycare for our children so I could return to work full time, not so I could go home and sleep.
  • And of course, I confess that I’m guilty of making poor sleep hygiene choices, like middle-of-the-night screen use.  Usually when I’m up nursing in the dark of my son’s nursery, I read and respond to emails, check Facebook, and browse articles illuminated from my iPhone.  This is a terrible idea, not only because of the stimulation from the content of what I’m reading, but also because of the alerting effects of light. Of course, I could nurse in the dark and snuggle my little boy back to bed blissfully, but I choose the tempting iPhone because, as we all know, it holds all the secrets to the universe.

I wish it were easier to choose to be on the side of daytime sleep, early bedtimes, and no screen time until morning.  But–let’s face it–it’s hard to make good choices when I’ve had three months of zombie brain.

Lauren Hale

Lauren is an Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine in the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University. She is also a board member of the National Sleep Foundation and the editor of Sleep Health: The Journal of the National Sleep Foundation. She has a three-year-old and a newborn and wishes she got more sleep.

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