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Don’t Wake Mom Today

This Mother’s Day, take pity on the woman who cooks, cleans, shops, fusses and worries over you.

Before you overwhelm her with breakfast in bed, let her sleep in.

It’s no secret that women are chronically sleep deprived, and moms, especially working moms, are at the top of that list.

According to a survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, almost three out of four American women between the ages of 30 and 60 don’t get the recommended eight hours of sleep a night during the week. The average weeknight’s sleep for women is only about six-and-a-half hours.

“Sleep deprivation is epidemic in the United States,” says Gary Zammit, director of the Sleep Disorders Institute at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. “Most of us need eight hours or more in order to feel refreshed and fully functional during the day. The majority of us are getting less than that.”

“It’s part of the achievement orientation that’s become unbalanced in our society, which results in a lack of respect and attention to rest and relaxation, not to mention play,” adds Dr. Suzanne Griffin, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

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What are the reasons for the lack of sleep and lack of quality sleep? They can run the gamut from hormonal fluctuations to depression and anxiety to just being a vigilant mom, the experts say.

“The most obvious one is hormonal fluctuations, which, to some extent, defines femaleness, and there are several different times in life when we encounter this,” Griffin says. Menopausal, perimenopausal and postpartum women are most likely to have disturbances in sleep continuity. Also, one quarter to one third of women will experience some sleep disturbance while they have premenstrual syndrome (PMS) at least half the time, Griffin adds.

Women are also more likely to suffer from certain diseases that are associated with sleep disturbances, such as fibromyalgia and depression.

Moms have additional difficulties.

“For many mothers, their brain is set to a level of vigilance and awareness even during sleep that allows them to wake up to small changes in the environment — whimpers, coughs, kids getting up and padding around,” Griffin says. “What happens in particularly sensitive people, once they get that level of arousal going, their brain is trained to wake up, and then they develop a more chronic sleep disturbance.”

There’s also a social aspect related to the increasing number of roles that women are taking on in society.

“As women have occupied more important roles in the workplace, they haven’t necessarily relieved themselves of their traditional roles in the home,” Zammit says. “For women, particularly mothers, they go out and work and then they come home and for the most part they bear the greatest burden in the family of caring for their spouse, cooking, laundry, children and so on. Most of them fit it in by cheating on their sleep.”

The consequences can be huge.

“Even a small amount of sleep deprivation — say an hour a night when it occurs chronically over an extended period [of] one or two weeks — that can have an impact that is as significant as staying awake all night long and then trying to function,” Zammit says.

People who don’t get enough sleep are often not at peak performance. Their memory, concentration, cognitive functioning, attention and mood all suffer.

Fatigued people are also at greater risk for accidents and injury, especially motor vehicle accidents. The National Transportation Safety Board reports that 100,000 police-reported crashes each year are the direct result of drowsy driving, resulting in more than 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in economic costs.

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But don’t lose hope. There are several common-sense things moms and all women can do to try to get their sleep and life back on track. Try these steps:

  • “The most important thing is learning to say ‘no,’ and the second most important is delegating,” Griffin says. Try setting limits on the amount of time you are willing to devote to particular activities, and determine what your most important priorities are. For Griffin, mothering her children was the clear priority that led her to change her schedule and professional commitments.
  • Stay away from alcohol and caffeine, both of which can alter your sleep for the worse.
  • Dedicate the bedroom to sleep and love only, Griffin suggests. If you have trouble sleeping or getting to sleep, don’t read, talk on the phone, watch TV or make lists in bed.
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Relax for an hour before going to bed, Griffin advises. “If you have been busy, busy, busy until the minute you get into bed, it’s going to be difficult to turn off your head,” she explains.
  • Turn the clock around so, if you are awake, you’re not watching the time.
  • Try a light snack before you go to bed so your blood sugar doesn’t drop and wake you up in the middle of the night. Avoid snacks with a heavy sugar content, Griffin advises, and go for cheese and crackers or cheese and fruit instead. Don’t have any heavy meals within three hours of going to bed.
  • Stay away from herbal remedies because in the United States, it’s hard to know what the potency of a compound is. Opt instead for herbal teas such as peppermint, Sleepy Time and chamomile, Griffin says.
  • “Exercising is really important for promoting good sleep, but it needs to occur more than three hours before bedtime, otherwise it will interfere with getting to sleep,” Griffin says.
  • If you find you can’t sleep after 15 minutes in bed, get out of bed and go to a quiet, dimly lit place where you can relax until you fall asleep. Don’t get up to do the laundry.
  • If your sleep disorder persists, visit a sleep-disorders center, but make sure it’s accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Zammit says.

“It’s important to realize that better living does not necessarily mean more living. It might mean better quality living,” Zammit says.

“As people think about what life experiences are like going through life fatigued, they’re not really getting the most out of their lives and they’re probably not delivering the most to their families,” he adds. “So, actually saying that, ‘yes, sleep is an essential for me,’ is part of setting the foundation for a good life.”

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