Raising Happiness


Tired Working Mother Sleep Saga

April 14, 2010 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

I seem to be on a sleep roller coaster. After I spent more than a year with chronic strep throat, I resolved to get more sleep, even if it takes me weeks to answer my emails and I get behind on those things that I generally catch up on in the middle of the night.

By and large, I've been getting 8 hours of shut-eye many nights, despite a book launch and tour. Last week I went on vacation for a few days, and four nights in a row I slept nine, or once, TEN hours. Whoa. This tells me I need even more sleep than I've been getting, perhaps more so when I've got a lot going on.

Back from vacation, I've been so anxious to get caught up I've hardly slept at all, two nights in a row. This has left me with many problems that sleep researchers predict. I'm moody; I get sad, critical, and impatient when I'm tired. I have trouble staying focused, and my intelligence is clearly dulled. None of those things are happiness habits. Sleep is, as I've posted about before, perhaps THE ultimate habit for health and happiness. Like eating and breathing, sleep is an ante to the well-being game.

This goes for our children as well. We teach our children about the importance of sleep through our own behavior. Watching Race to Nowhere, an excellent documentary about the pressure kids are under to achieve at all costs, I was struck by a particular irony. The director, in showing the tragedy of kids starving themselves and taking black-market Ritalin so that they can stay up all night studying, seems pretty tired herself. In fact, in most scenes she's toting a big fat latte, which I'm guessing isn't decaf. How can we expect kids to do as we say (Get enough rest! No substances to keep your tired brain focused!) but not as we do?

At least I understand the role that sleep plays in my KIDS' health and happiness, I tell myself. At least I'm super committed to making sure that THEY are in bed early and getting enough rest. Except for the unfortunate fact that it's harder to herd my cats into bed by 7:30 or 8:00 when I'm tired, I still think getting kids into good solid sleep habits is the most important place to start. That way, my own exhaustion doesn't affect them as much.

One question I get a lot in my consulting practice is this: What can I do to help my kids fall asleep faster? I've lived this question myself. One of my kids takes ages to fall asleep, especially when she is over-tired. She keeps herself awake sometimes an hour past the point of utter exhaustion, protesting that it is too dark or too light, that she had a "scary thought," that she needs, you guessed it, a drink of water. What can a tired parent do?

Getting kids to sleep quickly turns out to be a really salient issue because research shows—amazingly—that kids who fall asleep faster get A LOT more sleep. I was thinking that if I could get my daughter to sleep in 10 minutes instead of 45, not only would that make my evening more pleasant, it would mean that she is getting 35 more minutes of sleep each night. But kids who fall asleep faster sleep considerably longer: For every 10-minute reduction in the time it took them to drift into dreamland, kids got an extra HOUR of sleep.

So HOW how how, you ask? Physical activity is one answer. When researchers in Europe had kids wear actigraphs—gadgets that measure movement—they found that the time it takes kids to fall asleep once they are in bed is closely linked to daytime physical activity. Every hour of sedentary activity (e.g., time parked in front of the boob toob, or in my daughter's case, sitting at her desk doodling) results in an additional 3.1 minutes of time taken to fall asleep.

This means that I've got to counter all the time that my kids spend sitting in school and on the bus with movement. We are now walking the dog—rain or shine—as a family after dinner each night, and we have dance parties while cleaning up the kitchen.

The takeaway: If you want yourself and your kids to get good rest, you've got to get active.

© 2010 Christine Carter, Ph.D.


Arch Dis Child. 2009 Sep;94(9):686-9. Epub 2009 Jul 24.

Falling asleep: the determinants of sleep latency. Nixon GM, Thompson JM, Han DY, Becroft DM, Clark PM, Robinson E, Waldie KE, Wild CJ, Black PN, Mitchell EA.

Hat tip to Brion Raymond for sending me news of the sleep latency study.
Ginormous shout-out to Kalai, who makes it possible for me to get hours more sleep each week because of her help with posting blog content.

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