I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. First of all, my husband Barry and I have noticed a lot of toddlers our son’s age out and about around town at night — way past our little sleeper’s 7:00 p.m. bedtime. That had us casually wondering whether we were putting him down too early.
Secondly, Barry and I have both been having some really vivid dreams lately — the kind that make you think you’re really there, and are hard to shake out of when you wake up. Barry’s even been known to talk or yell out loud during these dreams, waking me into a confused state where I’m not sure what’s going on.
And thirdly, I don’t really feel like I’ve been getting enough sleep lately, and often feel myself dragging by early afternoon.
So I decided to find out: what are the optimal sleep times and patterns for the whole family?
As it turns out, Konan’s bedtime is fine for a one-year-old, but some parents prefer keeping their young children up later, while other parents erroneously think it will make the kids sleep later in the morning. Konan, on the other hand, has been sleeping through the night with barely a hitch since he was three months old, waking up at a reasonable time of around 7:30 a.m.
He’s down to one nap during the early afternoon, which usually lasts anywhere from just over an hour to well over two hours depending on how tired he is and whether he’s home in his own bed or not. This all works out perfectly, because most toddlers need 11-12 hours of sleep at night, plus a couple of hours of naps a day. Interestingly, they’re often more likely to get that amount when they go to bed earlier, because staying up too late makes them overtired and unable to fall asleep quickly.
Of course, if you’re not the parent of a toddler, that’s going to mean very little to you — except, perhaps, a mild passing interest in the fact that kids of that age sleep more than half their lives away. They have to pack a lot of playing (and running around, and trying to open cupboards and drawers) into the awake time they have.
But the next part will definitely mean something to you. Adults have always been told that we need about eight hours of sleep a night — a mere one third of our lives, which is a lot better than giving up half of the precious time that we actually get to DO something with. After all, sleep may be important, but it sure doesn’t feel like we’re accomplishing much while we do it.
Or are we? As it turns out, sleep helps us heal. “Not allowing time for our system to heal leads to increased chances of sickness and a lingering feeling of sleep deprivation,” according to a 2009 article in Happy Living Magazine. Not only that, but experiments with mice showed that getting no sleep led to death within three weeks, whereas a normal mouse lives up to three years. So I guess we’re accomplishing life by sleeping.
That’s why I feel so run down when I don’t get enough… and then, like Konan, I turn to an afternoon nap as a pick-me-up. And I’m not alone — the Pew Research Center says that one third of American adults nap on any given day, and a 2008 study in the Nature Neuroscience journal reported that a 90-minute nap helped people remember things. Yeah, from experience, I’d have to agree with that.
It’s natural to nap, because humans are apparently bi-phasic sleepers — meaning we’re supposed to sleep in a few shorter periods rather than one long stretch.
But if all of this seems to be suggesting that more sleep is better, that’s not necessarily the case. And by the way, that eight-hour goal that we’ve been led to believe is true might even be too much. In the early 80s, over one million adults were studied by a team from the American Cancer Society and the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. It took the team almost 20 years to compile their data and publish it in a 2002 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. In the end, they concluded that the optimal length of sleep is six to seven hours. Any less than fours hours, and any more than eight hours, led to a much higher death rate — maybe not as bad as the mice, but still!
As for the funky dreams, it seems that not getting enough morning light can throw off our natural body clocks, and cause us to spend too much time in dream-heavy REM sleep. That’s not an issue for me, since I’m up early every day with Konan. But Barry tends to be a night-owl, often working late at night when no one’s around to interrupt his flow, which makes him miss some of that vital morning trigger.
I think from now on I’ll make an effort to get us both to bed at a reasonable time. After all, if it’s good enough for a toddler, it’s good enough for everyone.
Sleeping with Baby © Rolands Lakis
Sleeping with a Rat © Rich Mooremi