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When Annie Krusznis gave birth seven 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 at five months, thinking her sleep woes were over. She didn’t know she would endure three more years of insomnia while her son 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 activities, leaving them too tired for exercise, healthy eating, friends, or sex.
When it comes to sleep, women have a natural disadvantage compared to men. They experience higher rates of insomnia and nighttime pain, but actually need more sleep — around 20 minutes more per night, according to sleep expert Jim Horne.
When women become moms, sleep deprivation becomes a way of life. Nearly three-quarters of moms experience sleep problems. Ten percent confess they’re still not getting a full night’s sleep, even as kids approach the preschool years.
Why you need your Zzzs
With the dishes, laundry, bills, email, social media, and work all clamoring for our attention, who has time for a full night’s sleep? Women in the prime caregiving years — ages 30 to 60 — register only 6 hours, 41 minutes of sleep per weeknight. Moms who work full-time report spending under six hours in bed during the week.
Yet a busy schedule doesn’t diminish our need for sleep, according to Dr. Sridar Chalaka, director of the North Puget Sound Center for Sleep Disorders. When we repeatedly shortchange our sleep needs, our bodies pay the price.
Women 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. It can also impact your driving.
“People with sleep disorders experience so many other health problems; you can almost see them aging faster,” says Chalaka.
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 that we need to stay up later to finish one last email before turning in. People who barely sleep — recently dubbed the “sleepless elite” by The Wall Street Journal — are seen as dedicated and driven.
Ironically, 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,” notes Chalaka, “when we’d be much more creative, calmer, more productive, and less stressed if we’d only get more rest.”
Reclaim your rest
Improve your own sleep hygiene, says Dr. Robert Aronson, medical director of Cardinal Sleep Disorder Centers of America. He recommends a predictable wind-down ritual at bedtime, avoiding strong light, and going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
If you experience sleep troubles that disrupt daily activities for more than a month, seek professional help. Parents 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.
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.”
Rest for the Weary
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Avoid varying your sleep schedule, even on weekends.
- Exercise four to five hours before bedtime; avoid late night workouts.
- Sleep in a dark, cool, quiet room.
- Avoid caffeine or other stimulants after 2 p.m.
- Enjoy a short afternoon power-nap. Naps 25 or 90 minutes are most effective.
- Check medications: antidepressants, thyroid hormones, beta-blockers, diuretics, and some decongestants can harm sleep.
- No alcohol before bedtime.
- Relaxation, meditation, hypnosis, and aromatherapy can improve sleep.
- See a doctor if insomnia disrupts your daily life for more than one month.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.