On a good night, Elizabeth Fern gets five or six hours of uninterrupted sleep. This only happens if she’s not behind on work or household tasks, and if none of her children have a hard time sleeping through the night.
Nearly 40.6 million adults in the United States (about 30 percent of the civilian work force) get less than six hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The recommended amount is seven to nine hours for adults and nine hours or more for teens and children.
There are several things parents—and other busy adults—can do to minimize their sleep troubles and maximize their shuteye. Experts offer numerous suggestions, such as regular exercise, and even overwhelmed parents themselves do what they can to stay on track with sleep. Still, life happens, as the stories of ordinary local families can confirm.
Fern, a psychology instructor at Onondaga Community College, tries to stick with a routine that promotes healthy sleep habits. She and her husband, David, make sure that their wake-up times don’t vary more than an hour of each other’s, and that they don’t stay up more than an hour later than the usual bedtime on a Friday or Saturday night or sleep in more than an hour past their weekday wake times on weekends. She’s usually pretty tired after their children Aaron, 14, Anna, 10, and Errol, 7, are all asleep, which is usually before 9 p.m. But there’s still much to do before she can turn in.
“There’s lunches to make, papers to correct, lesson plans to make—plus housework,” Fern says. “There’s not a lot of time to decompress.”
Fern says fitness—mainly yoga and brisk walks—helps her to feel revived and maintain a high-energy level. Occasionally she takes a 20-minute power nap, long enough to be refreshed but short enough to avoid falling into a deep sleep. When she does feel wiped out, Fern knows when to skip certain tasks to get a few extra hours of sleep and avoid weakening her immune system.
Hunter Scott, co-host of the WKRL-FM (100.9 K-Rock) morning radio show “Hunter and Josh,” is also among the millions of sleep-deprived working adults. He’s up before 5 a.m. on weekday mornings and can’t hit the sack himself until his three sons are asleep. Sometimes he’s able to grab a short nap between 3 and 4 p.m. after they get off the bus, but then he’s responsible for supervising them, getting them to sports practices or activities, and making dinner. His wife typically works in the afternoon and evening.
He says sleep comes in waves, and by Friday night he feels pretty exhausted.
“That’s when we get pizza and watch wrestling,” says Scott, 43. “I’m on the couch and feel pretty wiped out. I try to use the weekends to catch up on sleep.”
Still, Scott has taken some steps to feel more energetic during the weekday. He works out at a gym regularly and sees a therapist about once a week.
“It helps,” he says. “If you make time to exercise, it helps manage stress. With the therapy, I’m talking to them and not bringing my problems home or to work. It’s a dumping ground for stress. You do feel less weighted down.”
Local sleep experts say even the busiest of parents can take a few simple steps to get a better night’s rest more often.
Dr. Antonio Culebras, a professor of neurology at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse and a consultant for the sleep center at University Hospital’s Community General location, preaches the “10 Commandments of Sleep” for adults (see sidebar on page 20).
He especially emphasizes the importance of going to sleep and waking up at the same time seven days a week.
“The brain uses a circadian rhythm,” he says. “It doesn’t know if it’s a Sunday or a Monday. Anything beyond a regular schedule will cause disorder to the brain. I know it’s not easy, but it’s important to remember that the brain loves regularity.”
For those who are able to maintain a routine at home, Culebras says, short naps, even if they are only 15 or 20 minutes, are fine as long as they are taken at the same time each day. Certain foods can aid in making you tired. Carbohydrates induce sleep, and should be consumed two to three hours before bed. A little wine won’t hurt, he says, but heavy amounts of alcohol interfere with your ability to fall into a deep sleep and may also cause you to have to wake up and go to the bathroom.
Soft, quiet music is good before bed. Reading helps as well, as long as the subject matter is not violent, scary or stressful, Culebras says. He does not recommend newspapers—the subject matter can cause stress and the sound of crinkling paper stimulates the brain too much. He also cautions against reading anything online in the bedroom.
“Don’t bring your computer in the bedroom. Get rid of that television set in the bedroom. Get rid of the electronics,” he says.
Meditation is a great activity before going to sleep, and can also help if you wake up. This occupies the brain and “obstructs the intrusion of stressful or uncomfortable thoughts,” Culebras says.
“In the bedroom,” he adds, “you need to stay away from thoughts about work or anything else that causes stress.”
But that may be almost impossible for some people. Cheryl Vetter, of Warners, says her demanding work schedule and that of her husband, Matt, leave no time for slowing down the pace at home. They try to put their boys Nathan, 7, Michael, 5, and Noah, 2, to bed by 9 p.m., but by the time all three are asleep, it’s usually closer to 10 p.m. That’s when Cheryl, a financial analyst, turns her laptop back on to finish the day’s work that she puts on hold when she leaves the office to pick the children up from school and day care.
“They get out of bed to go to the bathroom, to visit each other,” she says. “I wonder if they all are just naturally a night person like me. There are times when I’ll have to sit in the hallway with my laptop just to monitor them.”
Cheryl often doesn’t get to sleep until 1 a.m. or later. She’s not a coffee drinker, and by 2 or 3 in the afternoon she feels like she really needs a nap. Outdoor walks help revive her, and she grabs a few extra hours of sleep on the weekends by going to bed earlier and sleeping in longer. She and Matt trade mornings, with Matt taking care of the boys when they wake up on Saturday morning and Cheryl getting up with them on Sunday.
“We don’t have a good routine,” she says. “We’re probably the most extreme example of that.”
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, chronic sleep loss is a risk factor for immune system impairment, and sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity, diabetes and hypertension.
Dr. Zafer Soultan, a pediatric pulmonologist at Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse, has counseled parents and children on ways the entire household can get a good night’s sleep. A bedtime routine, he says, “should be quick, and in one direction.”
That means, he says, going from the kitchen to the bathroom to the bedroom: Eat dinner, take a bath or shower and retire to the bedroom for a story and then sleep. Keep it simple.
“If you have too many tasks, then it’s too complicated,” he says. “You have to stick with a routine.”
Older children can be a challenge, and parents tend to be more lax with a teen-ager’s schedule. Soultan says parents should make sure that the child, regardless of age, is getting nine or 10 hours of sleep on a school night. Parents also need to monitor their child’s sleep periodically, and keep an eye out for snoring or other signs of sleep disorders. Teens who resist parental advice about going to bed early might learn about the consequences of sleep deprivation in biology class, Soultan says, and then—maybe—they will take note of it.
“If they hear it from someone else,” he says, “it makes a difference. But parents can do more to help get them (kids) to bed earlier. Pay attention to their schedule.”
And parents, if they are able, can set a great example for children of any age if everyone in the house goes to bed at the same time.
“It’s worth a try,” Soultan says. “If the whole house is regulated, that’s great.”
The Children’s Consortium, a Syracuse-based parenting resource, held a sleep workshop in November. Educators and participants talked about the difficulties of getting children to sleep and the disagreements parents often have about establishing and reinforcing healthy sleep habits. Erin Yeager, a workshop facilitator with the consortium, says establishing a consistent bedtime routine is much more difficult for parents now than it was when she was a child.
“Everyone is so busy now,” she says.
“My parents were always home for dinner. Families don’t always have dinner together every day of the week, but no matter how busy our lives are, there’s always time to take a little while to slow things down.”
Yeager says it’s important for parents to stop thinking about work as soon as they get home, let alone at bedtime. Once Mom and Dad slow things down in their lives, they can help their children to relax. Like Soultan, the pediatric pulmonologist, Yeager stresses the importance of making bedtime as a three-step process that starts at the dinner table, proceeds to the bathroom and ends when the child is tucked in.
“Parents need to demonstrate that it’s their routine as well,” she says. “Consistency and routine are good for parents and children.”
The 10 Commandments of Sleep according to Dr. Antonio Culebras
• Establish a regular bedtime and waking time.
• Do not allow daytime naps to exceed 45 minutes.
• Avoid excessive alcohol ingestion four hours before bedtime, and do not smoke (nicotine is a stimulant).
• Avoid caffeine—coffees, soda, tea, chocolate—six hours before bedtime.
• Avoid heavy, spicy or sugary foods four hours before bedtime.
• Exercise regularly, but never before bed.
• Use comfortable bedding.
• Block out all distracting noise and keep the bedroom dark.
• Keep the bedroom ventilated, and find a comfortable temperature.
• Avoid using the bedroom for work.
Aaron Gifford is an award-winning writer who lives in Cazenovia with his wife and two children.
Photo Above: © Marzanna Syncerz | Dreamstime.com