Sleep has always been a bit of a mystery, hasn’t it?
The top scientists still haven’t gotten their heads around it, and they may never do so!
From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems crazy that we still basically spend a third of our lives sleeping. I mean, how did we make it this far as a species when we are practically unconscious for so long each night, making us vulnerable to goodness knows what?
But it does go to show that sleep must be vital to our health and wellbeing.
The scientific community has yet to figure out exactly why we sleep, but there is a consensus among researchers that adequate sleep is beneficial for various reasons.
Difficulty focusing on information after a poor night’s sleep is a familiar sensation for most people. But absorbing information is only part of the battle.
Learning and memory are divided into three functions. Acquisition, consolidation, and recall.
Put simply, you need to receive the info, stabilize the memory of it, and finally be able to access it when you’re watching ‘Mastermind’!
Whilst acquisition and recall only take place while you’re awake, consolidation “takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories.”
“The overall evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for learning and memory.”
So despite learning and acquiring the information, without sleep, that information won’t be properly stored in the brain, and when called upon to access it, you’ll find yourself drawing a blank.
The link between sleep and effective learning is particularly relevant in a school setting. Indeed, the first 16-20 years of a child’s life revolve around learning and retention in some form. Therefore, the importance of a healthy sleep schedule should not be overlooked.
A study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who experienced even partial sleep deprivation reported feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion.
This isn’t new information. We’re all aware that we get emotional after too little sleep, but why? Why shouldn’t it have a similar effect on the brain as a few glasses of wine?
Another mystery, but some researchers have suggested that sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala. That’s the almond-shaped part of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of anger and fear. These intense feelings can lead to a sense of stress and hostility towards others, which is probably part of the reason why you blew up at your colleague when he enquired about your weekend last Monday.
So getting enough sleep is essential to learning and emotional well-being, but what about the more tangible benefits? Well, besides eating and breathing, nothing has more health benefits than good quality sleep.
“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health.
People who regularly get between 7-9 hours of sleep see significantly lower rates of obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, infections, depression, diabetes, inflammation, hypertension, heart disease, heart attacks, and heart failure. They also report higher satisfaction with their sex lives, better performance at work, and take fewer sick days than people who sleep less than 7 hours a night.
So there’s no question that sleep, while it remains mysterious, is an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle.
New parents surely know more about sleep, or lack of it, than most. Bringing a new life into the world apparently goes hand in hand with severe sleep deprivation.
This is, in my mind, the most problematic myth about parenthood, and one that needs to be corrected.
Here’s the thing; your baby needs sleep even more than you do.
Those little bodies may look peaceful when they sleep, but there’s a frenzy of work going on behind the scenes.
Growth hormones are being secreted to enable your baby to gain weight and grow while cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies. All kinds of miraculous, intricate systems are at work laying the foundation for your baby’s growth and development which, given the opportunity, they will continue to do through to adolescence.
Nature does the hard work. All that’s required of your little one is to close their eyes and sleep. In my field of expertise, I see a LOT of people telling new parents that babies just don’t sleep well and that they should expect their little ones to be waking them up seven or eight times a night.
So to those people, I would just like to say, you are quite simply wrong!
Simply dismissing a baby’s sleep issues as an inevitable part of parenting prevents new parents from addressing the problem head on, which can have serious repercussions for all the family. Parents need adequate sleep simply to function. It’s not about those lost lie-ins!
If your baby is waking up 7 or 8 times a night and crying until you come into the room to soothe her back to sleep, that’s not normal. That’s a baby who has trouble sleeping, and it could be interfering with their body’s natural development. It’s no different than an earache or reflux. It’s a health issue and it has a solution. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not helping.
Accepting poor sleep in infancy leads to accepting it in adolescence, and ultimately with grown adults who don’t afford sleep the importance it deserves.
So to every new mother out there – sleep is not a luxury that you have to learn to live without while your baby is little. If your baby’s not sleeping, address it. It’s not selfish, it’s not unrealistic, it’s necessary, and the benefits are prolific.