Tired But Happy Mom Reads a Study and Wonders: Just How Important is Sleep?

So, Tired, Happy Mom was starting up her work day at the dining room table—after schlepping Older Daughter and Younger Daughter to school at 5:30 am (don’t ask) and sending Little Boy off with his father, Awesome Dad (still looking for childcare)—when she came across a study published in a recent volume of the journal Pediatrics. Said study caught her eye because it was devoted to the bleary focal point of her life, indeed those of all parents with young children: sleep.


The report, conducted by a team of researchers at the University of South Australia at Adelaide, found that over the last century children have been getting “consistently about 37 minutes less than what was recommended for them”—and that the overstimulation of “modern life,” whether the invention of the light bulb or Facebook, has always been blamed for depriving kids of their daily dose of restorative unconsciousness. 


Tired, Happy Mom’s first response was: You need a study to tell you that? Good Heavens, Tired, Happy Mom could write a whole memoir chronicling the agonies and triumphs of getting people to turn the lights off and go to bed—and the agonies and triumphs of rousting them out the next morning. But that’s already been done in the form of the hysterical collection of foul-mouthed nursery rhymes, Go the F**k to Sleep. It’s a bestseller. Obviously.


Honestly, is it possible to swing a cat and hit the parent of little kiddos whose life does not revolve around sleep? Tired, Happy Mom does not think so. Spend a few—okay, a lot more than a few—wakeful nights up with one or more children, and you begin to appreciate why sleep deprivation is such an effective means of torture. You function at a basic level, maybe, but it’s impossible to think clearly. Your judgment becomes clouded, and daily life events that would ordinarily not be a big deal suddenly seem overwhelmingly dire. Ergo, sleep is beyond critical.


Luckily, there is a great deal of advice about how to acquire it. And unluckily, there is a great deal of advice about how to acquire it. Indeed, there is so dang much of it that sifting through it all can addle the mind and spirit. So, why is it, Tired, Happy Mom has often wondered, that there is never a shortage of “the right answer”? Experts are everywhere: at the playground, the bus stop, the coffee shop, the adorable children’s clothing boutique. Simply let slip “I’m so tired,” and they’ll materialize.


There are the Ferber people, who swear that the loving but firm cry-it-out method yields the happiest, best rested children (and parents). There are the Weissbluth people, who say that paying close attention to your child’s levels of alertness and creating consistent rituals around each type of sleep—morning and afternoon naps and bedtime—is the way to go. There are the Family Bed people, who believe that the cuddling down practice of sleeping alongside their babies produces secure psyches. Just what is the right answer? Moreover, are there any long-term consequences to lack of adequate sleep in early childhood?


Having three children, ages 11, 8, and 3, does not make Tired, Happy Mom an expert. It does, however, make her acquainted with various impracticalities inherent in following any one strategy to the letter. The Ferber method, for example, may work when you have one child, but allowing a baby to howl for the allotted period of time when her toddler sister sleeps in the room next door means you now have two children under the age of three up and screaming. No go. Weissbluth’s philosophy may also make sense if there is a parent who does not have to work outside the home caring for one child, but the minute that cart is tipped, look out. Try attending to each child’s sleep nuances and let me know how it works. Please!


Tired, Happy Mom’s feeling about any prescribed parenting strategy is take what you like, see what works, and leave the rest. All in all, some days, Tired, Happy Mom’s kids are well rested; others, they’re tired and cranky. Ditto for herself and Awesome Dad. We all live through these cycles, and it seems to balance out in the end.


With that in mind, Tired, Happy Mom was pleased to read that the report’s researchers most striking finding was that there was no real evidence that the 37 missing minutes of recommended sleep for children was even necessary. Indeed, researchers said that sleep recommendations may reflect long-time convictions that kids are sleep-deprived and that modern life is too frenetic rather than solid science. Parents, said the study’s lead researcher, “should take sleep recommendations for children with a grain of salt.”


 It’s great advice, from where Tired, Happy Mom sits. And often sleeps.



Tired, Happy Mom is also known as Susan Gregory Thomas, author of In Spite of Everything: A Memoir (Random House: July, 2011) and Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds (Houghton Mifflin: May, 2007). Thomas writes for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Parents, and others. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.


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