How to give sleep the respect it deserves

I learned the hard way. Lack of sleep does a toll on your life. But I didn’t realize how it affects every aspect of your existence. Here are the most useful things I learned as I still navigate the world of sleepless nights with my two kids (4 and 2).

 Understanding how to capitalize on sleep is essential for everyone, especially those who are new parents.

 According to neuroscientist Matthew Walker PhD (@thesleepdiplomat) in his book Why We Sleep – the overtired brain is vulnerable to cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, obesity, stroke, chronic pain, diabetes and heart attacks… among other medical conditions.

 Lack of sleep is also attributed poor attention span, difficulty focusing and impaired memory. The list doesn’t stop there, but the point is clear, we are learning how tremendously important sleep is for our overall well-being.

 That’s probably why sleep deprivation is a common torture technique. It is ironic that one of the oldest and most successful torture techniques is also the result of one of the best thing to happen in a person’s life: becoming a parent. 

Be a sleep snob.

There is no substitute for sleep. There isn’t enough cultural emphasis on sleep. Do you remember when your friends became parents and they spoke about how they miss sleep? You may have thought to yourself how ridiculous that is because sleep isn’t that important. Or even, you can always make it up.

 Sleep needs to be your number one priority.

 The trifecta of health = sleep, diet, exercise.

 Sleep is the binding element that empowers all the other domains. It doesn’t matter how much you can deadlift or how much broccoli you are eating; if you don’t get enough sleep you aren’t going to experience the full benefit. Don’t let this discourage you from those healthy habits, just know that recovery is everything. 

Be an opportunist

Sleep used to be abundant. You had the freedom to stay out late and sleep in, shamelessly and with great satisfaction. Inversely, you would deliberately sabotage your sleep for the sake of binging that show or slaying the first person shooter with your other sleep-neglecting friends.

 Now… you may be running on the fumes of the disjointed 3 hour block you snuck in the night before or the black chunk of missing time that must have been a nap on your 20 minute subway ride.

You have to view sleep the way our ancestors viewed hunting game. You must capitalize the opportunity when it presents itself. You have to take advantage of what is available when it is available as it may not be available for long. So sleep when the little one sleeps – unless it’s your turn to clean and do the things necessary to be a human. This why you must…

 Make a schedule

Your schedule isn’t a schedule until your kids have one.  But you make their schedule by following one. It’s not as paradoxical as it seems. You have to be consistent with making their schedule so that you can at least somewhat predict when you will sleep. This is where collaboration with your spouse is important. You can schedule your week around the nights you need to sleep. If you know you have meetings on Thursday, then Wednesday is your night to sleep. But that means Thursday is your night to not sleep or whatever you call the twilight between diapers, feeding and rustling to the responses of your little one.

You can break it down by half days too. We had to do that for a while. I took the afternoon and my wife took the night. Whatever works, just make sure that you can stay consistent so that everyone is getting as much rest as possible.

Don’t have kids? You still need a sleep schedule. Dr. Walker puts strong emphasis on going to bed and waking up at the same time on both weekdays and weekends. As with most important things in life, consistency is key. Aim for 8 solid hours.

 Understand what screen time does to bedtime.

Put simply, the blue light emitted from screen time decreases melatonin release. Melatonin is the hormone involved in sleep. The blue light actually tricks your body into thinking it is daytime. This is why Dr. Walker recommends that screens should not be used at least an hour before bed.

You can change the light filter on your phone so that it is softer and less intrusive to your body’s sleep cycle. This effect is amplified on your children. Keep that in mind.

 Caffeine and Cold Showers:

Rely more on cold showers to wake you up instead of caffeine. You will already be taking coffee intravenously and you should try avoiding it within a 12 hour window of when you want to attempt some semblance of sleep.

You probably just scoffed, but trust me cold shower > coffee.  You want to avoid not being able to fall asleep if the opportunity arises. I have found that cold showers are more effective than simply relying on coffee. At the very least, consider the cold shower as a viable option in your arsenal of ways to fight the debilitating exhaustion.

 Most of the awful feelings you have are the result of not sleeping

I expected not to sleep, but I didn’t expect to be so miserable. This statement may seem ironic, but lack of sleep literally affects everything, especially your mood. This can have a compounding affect on your relationship as your spouse is most likely feeling the same effects.

Do yourself (and your spouse) a favor: suspend all bitterness and resentment until you are both more rested to discuss it. Suck it up, this too will pass. When you are both better rested you will be able to evaluate your situation and have a productive conversation instead of just tired yelling at each other.

It’s not about you anymore; it’s about getting it done for the family. This is one of the most joyous and taxing times in your relationship. You are both adjusting to a major life event and that takes time and patience. Remember the promises you made to each other. You knew it wasn’t going to be easy, this is what that looks and feels like.

Understand that if you feel tired and angry, frustrated, depressed etc., those feelings will change when you are no longer tired or rather, well rested.

 Don’t get angry- Breathe – 4-7-8

This was the most helpful piece for me. Inevitably you will be woken up, even if it’s not your night to wake up. As a life long insomniac who has always had difficulty sleeping, being woken up by anything at any point usually wreaks havoc on my sleep for the rest of the night.

But the first step is always: stay calm- DO NOT get angry. Getting angry will increase your heart rate, which will wake your body up because it activates the sympathetic nervous system - fight or flight mode.

Do the opposite – stay in rest and digest mode- breathe. Breathe deep. There is nothing but you are your breathe. Don’t worry about losing sleep, don’t worry about what you have to do, just breathe. Here is where 4-7-8 Breathing can save you. Developed by Dr. Weil.

 Practice using 4 – 7 – 8 Breathing.

1.) Exhale completely through your mouth.

2.) Inhale deeply through your nose for 4 seconds

3.) Hold your breathe for 7 seconds

4.) Exhale hard for 8 seconds

 Repeat for 4 full breathing cycles. This is a general relaxing technique, however, I have found it most useful during these times when I need to get back into rest mode… at baby o’clock at night.

 Always remember that there is no substitute for sleep. Once your child adjusts to a normal sleep cycle- don’t let that be an excuse to go back to your bad sleep habits.

 Now that you know how important sleep is, treat it with the respect it deserves.