Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Wonderful World of Sleep Deprivation

The words "sleep deprivation" mean something very different to me now than they did sixteen years ago. (I'm awestruck, as I am so often these days, by the idea that I've been a mother for that many years.) 

In 1997, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Ten fingers, ten toes, perfectly normal in every way. You know those exceptional babies who sleep through the night practically from day one? That was her ...


We had late nights and early mornings, erratic midday naps and 2:00 a.m. feedings. By month six (MONTH SIX!), I was so perpetually tired that I briefly fell asleep driving in the Sumner Tunnel on my way into the office one morning. What can I say, the light was dim, the traffic barely moving. Luckily, a rather impatient Boston driver behind me sounded his horn before I ran into the tunnel's wall. Yikes.

That particular wake-up call (yes, pun intended, um, sorry) convinced me to try Dr. Ferber's infamous CIO or "cry it out" method. Through progressively longer intervals, you train your baby to "self-comfort." This means listening to them cry and resisting the urge (deep-rooted, instinctive, frrrrkin' primal, maternal urge) to go in. I lay with a pillow over my head through two of the longest nights of my life.

Sure enough, my daughter slept through the third and has done so ever after. My own sleep deprivation, happily, was a thing of the past.

That was then. This is now.

In our house these days, the person suffering from sleep deprivation is my now teenage daughter. Between endless amounts of homework, studying for exams, after school jobs and activities, and a minimal attempt at a social life, she doesn't have enough hours in the day. Sure, she has been known to procrastinate a bit (who hasn't?). But, compared to her peers, she's remarkably focused. It doesn't seem to matter. There is quite simply too much to do.

Add to this the fact that teens biologically need more sleep than adults. Everyone from the National Sleep Foundation to the Mayo Clinic asserts this — in no uncertain terms. In fact, it isn't just the quantity that's important for developing adolescents. It's also when they go to sleep. Unlike younger children or adults, their natural biorhythms and body temperature don't allow them to go to bed early. They naturally tire some time around or after 11:00 pm.

Here's a typical dialogue in our house:

Teen: I'm soooooooo tired.

Parent: You need to go to bed earlier.

Teen: That soooooooo won't help.

No matter how much it may pain me to admit it, my daughter's right. On the odd chance that her schoolwork was actually done by 8:00 or 9:00, it wouldn't solve the problem. She would lie awake and still be exhaustedly unable to get up at 6:30 the next day.

And, that's the other issue. Teens need more sleep. Teens don't tire until late evening. Do the math ... high school classes that start before 8:00 am are not going to make for a success story. Neither are early-morning standardized tests, like last week's PSATs at 7:45. Recent studies have proven that scores go up when teens get up later.

Well, duh!

This is what kills me. The science is there. Sleep deprivation is not just an inconvenience. It's damaging and dangerous (heck, it's recognized — and condemned — as a form of political and military torture). We're all so concerned about improving student outcomes, competing on the global stage, no child left behind ... blah, blah, blah. I propose the following:

• Adjust high school hours to better suit the needs (the actual bi-o-lo-gy) of high school students

• Decrease the amount of homework for these poor kids (I'm definitely of the "longer school day" school of thought myself)

• Schedule standardized tests like PSATs and SATs at hours when students are at their peak performance (hint, that would  not mean at dawn)

To me this is all common sense. Then again, as Voltaire and Horace Greeley both observed ...

"Common sense is not so common."

If you enjoyed this post, order a copy of my new book Lovin' the Alien at

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