I’m not a sleep expert, I’ll start by saying that. However, I am a self-proclaimed sleep deprivation expert, so I promise to walk us through with appropriate skepticism and vetting of sources. I, like you, want to learn more about how to get better sleep as a busy parent, BUT through advice that actually applies to the life of a primary caretaker. I simply cannot read one more article or book touting the importance of uninterrupted sleep without laying out a clear plan for primary caretakers who carry the burden of helping little humans go to sleep and stay asleep.
I turned to the internet to see what I could find, just did a classic search for “How to get more sleep as a busy parent” and the responses were typical and basic. Most notably, the advice was “Make sleep a priority.” Thanks, internet. A few searches deeper and I did find an article in Parents magazine that gave some advice for busy working parents. This one included the standard: 1) Set earlier bedtimes, 2) Share the duty with your spouse or partner, 3) Chill out, and 4) Exercise more.
All of this advice is good, right? Right. It’s the standard across the board, even from verified sleep experts who have started sleep organizations and “revolutions” (I’m looking at you, Arianna Huffington). But, let’s be honest. Has it ever helped you? Or brought you to a new relationship with sleep or reduced your deprivation levels? No, not in my case. In my case, and in the cases of most of my friends who are parents, we hear this advice and then we just exit the pursuit. We decide that we’re messing it up, that we are not heroic enough to control our household sleep situation, and that we’ll just have to wait until the kids are older, like way older. Like maybe when they’re 60.
Let’s start with a few experts who wrote notable books on this subject of sleep. First, there’s Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. His basic message reminds us that 8 hours of sleep is essential to protect in order to avoid modern day diseases and other ailments. He says, “Human beings are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain. Many people walk through their lives in an underslept state, not realizing it.”
My issue here is the word “deliberately” and the phrase “no apparent gain”. These statements contain a TON of privilege that undermine the reality so many of us live as primary caretakers and for other reasons that I will mention in the conclusion of this article. Also, let’s just say that anyone who has binge watched any brainless show with plentiful snacks until 2am will obviously disagree with the notion that there was “no apparent gain” in that experience. Just sayin’.
Outside of that, his advice is standard sleep guidelines: Avoid screens before bed and in your bedroom, avoid sleeping pills on a long term basis, avoid caffeine later in the day, avoid trying to “catch up” on sleep (sleep is not stored in a bank, he explains), try meditating, etc. This advice is supported by the other experts I found. Chris Winter, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, adds to it by suggesting that naps can sometimes create more problems in the long run, so to be careful about making it a regular habit should you want that elusive 8 hours of sleep. And Arianna Huffington, author The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, says that making the prioritization of sleep a feminist issue creates motivation that we all need to make good habits begin. She also believes in adding in small blips of rest in your busy day at the office.
Overall, these experts make the declaration that 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep provides access to emotional regulation, mental and physical health, creativity and productivity, and the basic experience of joy in everyday life experiences. With this, I agree entirely. My push back on these experts is that this statement and the simple advice of making it a priority highlights the oppressively exclusive world of the health and wellness industry. This advice assumes that a person has control over their sleep environment and can shift their prioritization of sleep and then experience the benefits.
Many parents simply do not have this privilege. They are perhaps parents of young children, single parents, parents with multiple jobs and/or shift work, parents with mental health or physical health issues themselves, parents of neurodivergent children, parents in abusive relationships, etc. In these very common situations, a person simply does not have control over their sleep environment. They don’t have a “choice” to prioritize sleep.
If this is you, then I’ve compiled a short list of ideas that might actually help with getting better sleep:
- Take the pressure off. The reality is that, yes, 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep is the ideal amount of sleep, BUT there’s research that shows that this hasn’t always been the standard throughout history. According to a researcher named Roger Ekirch, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that humans could even manage one long sleep. Prior to that, there is evidence to prove that in medieval times people experienced “biphasic” sleep instead, also known as “first sleep” and “second sleep”. So, a person would go to sleep when the sun went down and then wake up in the wee hours and do some activities (pee, pray, sex, sit by the fire, etc) and tthen go back to sleep. Ekirch also explains that this wake time was also essential for many people, as sleep was a rather vulnerable time in terms of potential crime or dangers in the home (fires, pests, leaks, etc). With all this said, Ekirch is careful not to romanticize medieval sleep habits, but instead says that this research provides us with a way out of the pressure cooker that has become the sleep/wellness market. This means we can consider other ways to get rest if one long sleep isn’t possible for us for our own more modern reasons.
- Reparenting Yourself. This is hard, but the truth is that sleep is very much associated with safety and nothing wrecks our sense of safety than the stressors of parenthood. This is especially true if you are facing some of the realities I mentioned earlier. I have found it useful to consider my coping strategies for my unpredictable life as a single working parent with three children, who all have interesting sleep “stuff”. This means that instead of pining after the things I don’t have access to right now, I have been learning how to focus on what I can control and the parent my way to taking action in those areas. This means that when I have that unusual night when all the kids are asleep before 10 and my work is done and the dishes are done and I reallllllllly want to stay up binge watching another episode of (fill in the blank), there’s an opportunity to consider what a nurturing, boundaried, loving adult might encourage me to do, aka, tuck myself in and get the rest that is available to me that night. Bummer? Yes. Helpful? Definitely.
- Self Compassion and Support for Life Stressors. The reality is that so much of our struggles with sleep are connected to the amount of support we have in our life. If we are stretched to our capacity when it comes to caretaking, how can we expect ourselves to be very good at self-care? It has also been documented that even when a caretaker begins to have reduced srtess and/or a more controllable sleep situation in their life, they often struggle to capture the rest they need. All of this is often because we haven’t had time to process and deal with the storm we are in and were just in, which is explained beautifully by the author Ada Calhoun in her book, Why We Can’t Sleep. This is where therapy can be a huge life changing tool. And if resources do not allow for therapy to be an option, then seeking out support from groups of parents who are in your shoes can go a long, long way. There are also programs in many cities that provide therapy services at discounted rates and sliding scales. It is always worth opening the circuit of stress in your life and inviting company in to help you feel less alone and provide solutions you may not have considered.
- Saying No. Oooooof, this is hard if you are person dealing with an already squashed and tiring life, but this is a good time to reduce the urgency on all things that aren’t essential to your life and to your kids’ lives. This means I say a ton of No’s in my life now. I have a rule of thumb, if I have gotten less than 5 hours of sleep (which is most of the time, ahem), then I say no to anything extra. The way I learned this, though, was by saying Yes to something extra and then falling asleep while driving to it. It forced me to take seriously the effects of sleep deprivation and to be kinder to myself while in this hard moment of my life.
- Goof Off Often. I have discovered that sleep deprivation and this phase of my life can really be a soul sucker, which means I laugh less and adventure less and goof off less. I have discovered that even in the boundaries of reparenting myself and saying no to extras, there’s a ton of room to open the metaphorical windows of my life and let the air in. Goofing off, finding the silly moments, and opting in for doable adventures has helped me feel less constrained and, thus, less resentful of the the obstacles that stand in the way of my one long sleep.
I wish you all enough rest when possible. And until then, there’s always tomorrow … or soon-ish. Also, you’re not alone.