I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sleep.
The first reason for this is obvious: I’m not getting nearly enough of it. My daughter is going through one of those phases that babies sometimes go through, in which she wakes up for 1 or 2 hours every night and just. will. not. go. back. down.
(If your kid went through this, then you know what I’m talking about. And if your kid never did this, please, I don’t need to hear about it right now. Maybe later.)
As annoying as I find it to be up for two or three hours in the middle of the night, it wasn’t so long ago that this practice was completely commonplace, and not just for parents of small children.
We tend to think of a long, uninterrupted night’s sleep as a biological norm — something our body craves and needs. But in 2001, a Virginia Tech historian published a paper (and a subsequent book) revealing that, for centuries and as recently as the 1800s, it was not uncommon for people to sleep for a few hours, wake for an hour or so, then return to sleep.
Back then, of course, it was also more common for entire families to sleep in the same room. So one has to imagine that the concept of “uninterrupted sleep” was pretty foreign in general.
Nowadays, we worry a great deal about waking up at night, particularly when our kids do it. There are any number of websites, videos and books that promise to help me get my super-awake baby back to sleep.
For example, I can “Ferberize” my daughter by following a method of sleep training outlined in Richard Ferber’s 1985 book “Solve Your Sleep Problems.” The approach involves, among other things, leaving a wakeful infant alone for progressively longer periods of time to assist the child in self-soothing.
This approach is also known as “cry it out,” which always makes me think of a coach admonishing a hurt player to “walk it off.” I imagine myself standing next to the crib with a clipboard and a whistle, barking at my daughter to “cry it out.”
This, of course, is nothing like what Ferber recommends. But such are the creative digressions of a sleep-deprived mind.
And speaking as we are of sleep deprivation, I’ve been reading a little bit about what it does to you. And, man, it’s scary stuff.
A recent article in the Huffington Post ran down some of the usual symptoms of sleep deprivation, such as — are you ready for this? — fatigue, but went on to mention that a serious lack of shut-eye can lead to, not only visual hallucinations, but also “symptoms similar to acute paranoid schizophrenia.” It also apparently increases the risk of some cancers, as well as heart attack.
If you’re as tired as I have been lately — or even if you’re not — you probably need an alarm to wake you in the morning.
For as long as I can remember, I hated alarm clocks. Mine was set for 6 or 6:15 a.m. from the time I was 6 years old until I graduated from high school (not including vacations). I swear that every single one of those mornings, it felt like torture to haul my body out of bed. Waking up to my daughter fussing in her crib is nothing compared to the evil drone of an alarm clock.
Much as I hated alarm clocks, I never blamed them for making me fat. Turns out, I could have done just that.
Till Roenneberg, a professor at the University of Munich’s Institute of Medical Psychology, concluded in a 2012 study that “social jet lag,” or differences between people’s work and leisure schedules, seemed to contribute to weight gain.
Roenneberg argued that our modern lives are so far estranged from the circadian rhythms of life that our bodies get confused. Furthermore, we tend to treat sleep as an inconvenience, rather than a health necessity. As he put it, “Sleep has not been put out there by evolution as a time when we’re lazy. … It’s a time when we’re preparing to be extremely active.”
As for me, I’m with Roenneberg. I’m all for sleep, and lots of it. Now if I could just convince my daughter to get on board. Or maybe I should give up, and start keeping the “night watch” along with her. I could start a new parenting trend. I think I’ll call my book, “If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Join ‘em.”
Emily F. Popek is assistant editor of The Daily Star. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.