By Andrea Skyes
The minute my second child exploded into the world it was clear he was personally offended by the fall in his living standards. He was 9Ib 3oz of furious customer unleashed on TripAdvisor. If he’d had any control over his chubby, raging little hands he would have littered the internet with passive aggressive 0-star reviews. In his last residence he’d wanted for nothing! And now this?! This was a shambles. Daddy? Idiot. This baby grow? Burn it. Milk that I have to get myself? Are you mad? Sleep? How can you expect me to sleep in this wretched, godforsaken place?
My little angel’s solution was to wake up and loudly complain every 45 minutes to an hour for the first six months of his life. Then at least 3 times a night until he was 2 and a half. Sometimes for hours on end. Oh, the hours.
Was he in pain? Maybe he’s lactose intolerant? Have you tried co-sleeping? Swaddling? Rocking? Ignoring him? Singing? Slinging? This giant donut pillow that mimics the womb and costs the same as your first car? Heartbeat sheep? White noise machine? Blackout blinds? Kitchen fan? Shush patting? Gradual retreat? This dubious anti-histamine stuff I got from Australia which my cousin Britney swears by despite the fact that none of her kids have allergies?!
YES. Thank you.
Some of this might sound familiar (if it does, we will be great friends). But this is not an article where I talk about what worked, regale you with the weird questions I asked Google at 3am or guiltily confess to having violent feelings towards parents whose babies started sleeping through at 7 weeks. You know how Spotify creates playlists based on your most played tracks? Lovely, right? Wrong! Pop on mine from 2016 and the top track is ’60 minutes of womb sounds’ by that well-known superstar Baby-Einschlafhilfe. Not cool.
Writing this article actually came about after I got the fright of my life going to take a photo of my children only to realise I’d accidentally pressed the selfie-mode button. Who was that bedraggled, shattered-looking woman on my phone? How had it got to this? Most importantly what would be the consequence for me if a full night of uninterrupted sleep retained its status as a ‘special treat’? I decided to do a bit of research (admittedly in 3 minute chunks every night before passing out).
It’s commonly accepted that sleep deprivation = bad and 8 hours = good. However it was news to me that research shows sleep deprivation actually interferes with your ability to express joy. When sleep deprived you appear sadder, your voice has less of a positive effect on those around you and your face literally finds it harder to form positive expressions. In addition to having a clinically miserable face, regular sleep deprivation inhibits your mental processes, reduces your ability to stay calm, makes you respond more quickly to negative stimuli (wailing toddler) and causes increased reactivity to other emotional expressions (wailing toddler again). When I eventually managed to persuade my youngest that having his own room was AWESOME, he in turn put in great effort to persuade me that sleeping on the carpet next to his cot holding his hand was perfectly AWESOME too. It wasn’t. If I wasn’t in my bed with ear plugs in I was broken. It was hearing a podcast interview with neuroscientist Matthew Walker by chance that provided an explanation. Apparently, half of your brain won’t sleep as deeply as the other when sleeping in a foreign environment, like a hotel room, or in my case, my toddler’s bedroom floor. I do more reading.
In his 2017 bestseller Why We Sleep, Walker shares yet more gems. I remember once announcing that I felt like I was dying of sleep deprivation. It turns out that’s not far from the truth. Walker believes that lack of sleep is the greatest public health challenge we are facing in the 21st century, indeed that we need to confront this ‘catastrophic sleep loss epidemic’. He argues that sleep deprivation is a primary cause of obesity, because the hormone that usually tells you when you are full is blunted by lack of sleep. Not only that, the hormone that tells us when we’re hungry is actually amplified by lack of sleep. That’ll explain my inability to not inhale anything left on my children’s plates. As well as making me chubby and giving me sad face, lack of sleep also apparently makes me more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, diabetes, suffer a stroke, develop cancer, depression or anxiety.
Basically regularly clocking under 7/8 hours a night is as bad for you as regularly drinking and smoking to excess and will almost definitely shorten your life. And for you dads out there, if you regularly sleep 5-6 hours a night you’re likely to have the testosterone levels of a man 6-10 years your senior. It makes for sobering reading, particularly when in some circles lack of sleep and what you miraculously manage to achieve despite it has become commensurate with how tough you are. People’s attempts to get the right amount of sleep and turning in for an early one or just not a 3am one are stigmatised as boring, straight or lazy.
With two-thirds of adults in developed nations failing to obtain the nightly eight hours of sleep recommended by the World Health Organisation, Walker sums up our choice succinctly:
“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory, makes you more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?”
So what did I do and what can you do? Firstly, my problem was not getting to sleep, it was staying asleep thanks to the youngest sprog. So we spent what was probably the best £200 EVER spent on a straight talking sleep consultant called Mary who breezed in, laid down a gentle plan we were happy with. We stuck to it religiously (turns out lack of sleep can make you very inconsistent, go figure!) which in turn sorted the little sleep thieving tyrant right out. If you and your weans are mismatched in the sleep department I wholeheartedly recommend seeking expert help. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes on the situation and some support is just the ticket. If, however, your kids sleep but you don’t, Walker’s book offers up some further tips worth putting into practice.