There are two kinds of people in our house – the larks and the owls. Ken and Anna are the larks. They’re “morning people,” capable of carrying on a conversation without caffeine. And worst of all, they’re ridiculously cheerful at breakfast.
Adam and I are the owls. We love staying up late and sleeping in. We only speak when spoken to in the morning, and we’re strictly monosyllabic. It’s so unfair that most night owls have to follow the schedules of flittering morning larks.
Regardless of our natures, no one in our house sleeps as much as he or she should. I’d like to blame homework and deadlines for putting us in the red in the sleep column. But the truer culprit is our inefficiency. I can hear my kids’ objections now. “We start our homework right after dinner. We use free periods in school to stay on top of things.”
Save it kids. I know you’re on Facebook or you’re trolling the Internet for this, that and the other thing when you should be solving equations. You can’t fool the queen of procrastination. And you can’t fool your body. Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein is the regional medical director for the Harvard affiliated Sleep HealthCenters and was recently president of the American Academy of Sleep. He’s written a comprehensive book called The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep. Pick up the book and there is no doubt that Dr. Epstein is the go-to man for everything about sleep.
When I recently heard Dr. Epstein speak at my son’s school, he put my family’s lack of sleep in sobering perspective. At best, each of us is running on a two-hour sleep deficit. In my family, that adds up to eight hours of desperately needed sleep wasted on Angry Birds, Twitter and The New York Times crossword puzzles. Yes, everyone needs down time, but now more than ever there’s so much out there to entertain us. I don’t like to go to sleep early because I think I’ll be missing something.
There’s no getting around the fact that sleep is a basic biological drive. We’re predisposed to circadian rhythms – waking and sleeping at certain times. Sleeping is how we conserve and restore energy. Sleeping strengthens the immune system; it sharpens learning and memory; and it’s key to growth development. Teenagers, in particular, are constantly disrupting their circadian rhythms. To compensate, my son would happily sleep until one in the afternoon on the weekends if I didn’t insist he get up by 11 to join the world.
Statistics show that sleeping away the weekend to stay ahead of a cumulative sleep debt doesn’t work. Seventy million Americans – 25 percent of the population – have sleeping disorders. Twenty-seven percent of college students are at risk for a sleeping disorder.
Dr. Epstein likes the idea of a later start time for high school students. But he’s a pragmatist and acknowledges that pushing up a school’s start time can wreak havoc with a parent’s schedule and may have some economic fallout for the family. But I know the few school days in the year that Adam starts just a half an hour later make him human in the morning. Of course, if a later start time became routine, he’d probably adjust accordingly by staying up later and still be miserable in the morning.
A Good Night’s Sleep covers the obvious and not so obvious obstacles to restorative sleep. If falling asleep is difficult, avoid the bedroom until it’s time to retire. It may seem simple to do, but my kids and I work in our rooms after dinner. I even have a lap desk so I can type in bed. Working in bed (and yes, I’m writing this column there) sabotages sleep. I know that for me, I almost trick myself into thinking that I’m getting some rest by hanging out in my bedroom. But the truth is, it’s harder to wind down when I use the same room for sleep and work.
Limit caffeine and alcohol. No more Coke Zero at night. Wine may initially cause drowsiness, but it’s one of the major causes of sleep fragmentation. We’ve all been there, waking up several times at night. Relaxation and visualization can also be useful to segue into sleep. I’ve coached Adam, the biggest sleep skeptic in our house, using techniques instructing him to relax each muscle in his body. I’ll ask him to visualize lying on a warm beach or looking at a star-studded sky. Visualization worked better when he was younger. These days he shoos me away to write a paper.
Of course the biggest disruption to sleep is kids. Note the best-selling success of a tongue in cheek book called Go the F*** to Sleep. But there was something profound that happened to me when I became a mother. I was no longer responsible just for myself, and I never slept the same way again. I used to listen for cries. Now I listen for the car in the driveway. And I’m almost certain to lose sleep this coming fall worrying and wondering when my lark flies off to college.