When Annie Krusznis gave birth four years ago, she expected to sacrifice some sleep in the early months of parenthood. She rejoiced the first time her son Will slept through the night, thinking her sleep woes were over. She didn’t know that she would endure three more years of insomnia while he slept peacefully in his crib. Parenting an active toddler by day and struggling with insomnia at night “was almost a form of torture,” Krusznis recalls. “I began to lose sight of everything. I got frustrated easily, I couldn’t focus. I developed symptoms of depression.”
Her story is far from unique. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 67 percent of women have frequent sleep problems. Nearly half of women report tiredness that interferes with daily life, leaving them too tired for exercise, healthy eating, friends or sex. When it comes to sleep, women have a natural disadvantage compared to men. We experience higher rates of insomnia and nighttime pain, but we actually need more sleep—around 20 minutes more per night, according to sleep expert Jim Horne, author of Sleepfaring: A Journey Through The Science Of Sleep (Oxford University Press). When women become moms, sleep deprivation becomes a way of life. Nearly three-quarters of moms experience sleep problems. And ten percent of moms confess they’re still not getting a full night’s sleep, even as kids approach the preschool years.
Why moms need their sleep
With the dishes, laundry, bills, email and Facebook all clamoring for our attention, who has time for a full night’s sleep? Women in their prime caregiving years, ages 30 through 60, clock only 6 hours and 41 minutes of sleep per weeknight. Moms who work full-time report spending under six hours in bed during the week. But “a busy schedule doesn’t diminish our need for sleep,” says Dr. Sridar Chalaka, M.D., director of the North Puget Sound Center for Sleep Disorders. When we repeatedly shortchange our sleep needs, our bodies pay the price. Moms with sleep troubles experience higher rates of postpartum depression along with a host of other health and mood problems, from irritability and poor concentration to insulin resistance and weight gain. “People with sleep disorders experience so many other health problems; you can almost see them aging faster,” says Dr. Chalaka.
Those who spend their days shuttling kids around town should take note; sleep deprivation and driving can be a dangerous combination. Over one-quarter of women admit to driving while drowsy. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributes 100,000 auto accidents each year to drowsy driving.
Shedding the sleep stigma
Moms are keenly aware of the importance of sleep. After all, we enforce kids’ bedtimes and make sure everyone else gets enough shut-eye. So why do we find it so difficult to get the rest we need? In addition to our own biology, we’re battling powerful social forces that tell us we need to stay up later, finish one last email or fold one more load of laundry before we turn in. People who barely sleep—recently dubbed the “sleepless elite” by the Wall Street Journal –are seen as dedicated and driven. Ironically, says Dr. Chalaka, women who forgo sleep to wring more productivity from their day are actually preventing themselves from working at their peak. “We acclimate to sleep deprivation, so we may never realize that we’d be much more creative, calmer, more productive and less stressed if we’d only get more rest,” he says.
The good news: the key to improving our physical and mental health, our parenting and our lives is simple, easy, enjoyable and free. We just need more sleep. Moms who look after their kids’ sleep needs should take care to look after their own “sleep hygiene,” says Dr. Robert Aronson, M.D. medical director of Cardinal Sleep Disorder Centers of America. He recommends a predictable wind-down ritual at bedtime, avoiding strong light in the evening and going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
Moms who experience sleep troubles that disrupt their daily lives for more than a month should seek professional help, says Dr. William Kohler, M.D., medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute. Those like Krusznis who struggle with insomnia for months or years may be experiencing psycho-physiological insomnia. This “learned” insomnia takes hold when night waking becomes a habit, and can persist for years without treatment, he says.
Today, Krusznis sleeps through the night, and calls her insomnia ordeal a “strange twist of fate.” “I got frustrated with my son for not sleeping. And then I couldn’t take my own advice,” she says. If insomnia ever returns, she’ll get help sooner, she says. “I’ll never go through that ever again.”
Malia Jacobson is a writer and mom of two who specializes in sleep and health topics.