Getting Enough Sleep

There's an old saying: The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and the journey to health starts with sleep. Most people need at least eight hours of sleep each day; a person with a hardworking, stressful life - like a mother - usually needs even more, and it is vital to make sure you're getting enough. Insufficient sleep can lead to gastrointestinal troubles, a weakened immune system, and slow repair of strained or sore muscles acquired through routine activities like hauling children out of car seats. It also causes poor concentration and memory, lowers mood, and shortens a person's fuse.

When Your Children Are Little
If you've got a baby or toddler, these steps should help you get more sleep:

Ask Dad. There's no good reason why a father shouldn't cover a significant portion of the nighttime parenting - half, if possible. Apart from breast-feeding, a father can feed, walk, or settle a baby just as well as a mother can.

Unfortunately, some dads try to make the case that they have to function at work so they should be let off the hook at night. But you also have to function during the day. If you work for pay, your job performance matters as much as his does, and if you stay home, your hours are probably more stressful than his are. Besides, the stakes in any day of parenting - the mind and heart of a precious child - are usually more significant than whatever is on the table at work. Twenty years from now, those projects and career moves will be long forgotten, but a happy and productive person will be walking the earth, thanks to all the caring - and well-rested! - attention his parents were able to give him. So, if anything, you need more sleep than your partner does.

If he doesn't understand this on his own, your best chance of getting your message across lies in feeling clear in your heart that he should pull his weight at night, and making your case in a serious and determined way. If he still won't help, that suggests larger problems.

Sleep when the baby does. If you are staying home from work, do your best to sleep when the baby does during the day. You may need someone to watch any older children. It may also mean cutting back on housework for a few months, but your sleep is more important than a tidy home!

Consider shifting the father's sleep schedule. Sometimes the solutions are a lot easier than we think; they just take a little flexibility and a willingness to try something new. For example, when their kids were little, Rick started going to bed early with Jan and them, and then got up at 4 or 5 a.m. to work or study. This helped Jan get to sleep soon enough to survive nighttime parenting, and it gave Rick and her time in bed with each other.

Ask your partner to take the baby in the early morning. You could get more sleep while Dad can spend more time with his child. Kids are often at their best first thing in the morning; even so, your husband may get some eye-opening experiences with what its like to try to accomplish anything while tending to young children, which could help him understand better why the house isn't always picked up. After an hour or two, the baby might be ready for a nap with Mommy, letting you have a really long stretch of dozing or sleep. Again, this will take some arranging, but its often a pretty simple change.

Tailor sleeping arrangements to the unique needs of your family. It's common to feel pressured to take the advice of experts or other parents on sleeping arrangements, but what's important is to choose a method that feels right to you and your partner. Each of the main approaches - baby in the parents' bedroom ("cosleeping") or down the hall - has its pluses and minuses. Cosleeping worked for Jan and Rick's family for years, yet Ricki found that both she and her daughter got more rest once Leah was sleeping sweetly in her own room. Let's briefly review the pros and cons of each approach (you can skip ahead if you've already made up your mind).

From the child's standpoint, cosleeping is usually the most desirable option. During our evolutionary history, youngsters who strayed at night risked being attacked by predators. Consequently, it's natural for young children to protest intensely when they are made to sleep by themselves, and for their parents to feel uneasy if they can't hear their child's breathing. Studies have found that cosleeping is associated with children who are more likely to sleep better, be less fearful, handle stress well, behave in school, and be independent. There are also practical advantages. Parents often do not have to rouse themselves as much at night; many mothers barely wake if they roll over to nurse a baby, and their partner can sometimes keep sleeping. And one study found that the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in cosleeping arrangements was one-fourth as likely as down-the-hall arrangements, when obvious risks were avoided (e.g., parental obesity, use of tobacco, abuse of drugs or alcohol, soft mattresses, or blankets that could be pulled over the baby's head).

On the other hand, having a child sleep in her own room may enable her to rest better if one of her parents snores. Mom and Dad will be awakened less often themselves by a child's gurgling, coughing, and snoring. A mother and father have the need and the right to get sufficient sleep, and even if one were to focus strictly on the child, it benefits her to have well-rested parents. There is also more time for parents to talk and snuggle together alone, and more easy opportunities for lovemaking; moving the child out of the bedroom can be a kind of statement for the couple that their marriage has important parts to it besides raising kids.

The bottom line is that a particular arrangement may work for one child but not her brother, or for a parent at one time but not another. It's also important to consider the context in which sleeping occurs: other children, number of bedrooms, jobs, parental illness, and so on. You may be able to adjust one of those external factors, such as work hours, in order to have the sleeping option you'd like most, or you may realize that you have to live with a less-preferred sleeping arrangement for the sake of the greater good of your family and yourself. Your best guide is your own instinct and intuition, and don't let anyone - whether a know-it-all relative or a well-intentioned professional - talk you out of your deepest sense of what you, your child, and your family need. Nor is there any call to feel guilty: you will have thoroughly considered your options and made the best possible choice you could. Please see the boxes for tips on making either arrangement work for you.


From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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