The Sleep Myth

How do we construct our cultural narratives?

One way, it seems, is that we look at data points in our own lives, then cast about for friends’ and families’ stories, to see if they match. Then, once we have a loose hypothesis, we look for some authoritative voice to back it up. This can be a statistic, a study, a figure like the surgeon general, etc.

The question of how much we sleep is very much subject to this shaping. We do  sleep most nights, and so there are a lot of data points to pull from. As happens with any large set of data points, there will be variability. Some nights you get a lot of sleep, and some nights you don’t. Last night, for instance, I didn’t get much sleep because I stayed up until 12:30AM reading, and woke up around 7:15AM when Jasper informed me that his little brother wanted me to get him out of his crib.

I feel fine this morning, because I took a 2-hour nap yesterday afternoon. But since humans really need to sleep, not sleeping well on any given night makes that night feel terrible. The awfulness sticks out in our minds, thus giving the data point a lot of weight. Other people tell us of their horrible nights as well. Then someone — the National Sleep Foundation, or business publications, or doctors trying to seize the cultural zeitgeist — will use various figures to back up this idea that Americans are increasingly sleep deprived. We like this narrative because it makes our bad nights part of a larger trend, and also shows just how dedicated we are to our jobs and families. There’s just no time to sleep! Or, as the NSF reported a few years ago, working moms of school-aged kids spend less than 6 hours per night in bed on weekdays. (See the Briefcases with Backpacks section at the bottom).

Except this doesn’t seem to be true. Sure, plenty of people are sleep deprived, and any given mom may have a 6-hour night or two. But overall, Americans seem to be sleeping plenty. The American Time Use Survey, which relies on time diaries rather than personal estimations, pegs our average at 8.67 hours during any 24-hour period. This is up from 8.6 the year before. 8.57 in 2007 (so much for the narrative that the stress of the recession has us sleeping less). An average covers all kinds of people, from teens to retirees, but even working moms of school-aged kids sleep, on average, a bit over 8 hours a day.

We all like to complain. We all like to paint the atypical as typical (something I wrote about in a USA Today column called “Not So Sleepless in Seattle” last year, and in a BNET column last week). But I think the Sleep Myth is one of the most pernicious untruths in our culture. Because it sends a message to young people, particularly women, that if they dare to try to combine building a career with raising a family, they will never sleep. Indeed, that was the exact quote from one of the Princeton students that Amy Sennett polled for her 2006 thesis on attitudes toward work and childbearing — “I plan never to sleep.” It would change the story line entirely if young women would hear that not only is it possible to work, raise kids and get enough sleep, it isn’t even that rare.


7 thoughts on “The Sleep Myth

  1. You don’t want to be around any member of my family if we are short on sleep, so I make sure it happens. I too, get 8 hours of sleep a night. My boys (ages 8 & 4) are in bed by 7 pm, with lights out at 8. Having everyone pitch in with dinner prep and clean-up makes this possible. My husband I have time to ourselves, to relax, before we turn in at 9.

    1. I’ve never gotten the kids to bed that early — they were up until 10 last night, so my post-kid bedtime free time is always limited, but that’s OK. I exercise during the workday and have choir built into my schedule (with a babysitter scheduled and all that) so the fact that on any given night I’d only get an hour or so isn’t so bad. I’m trying to use it to read rather than work, though that’s not always happening…

  2. It’s not just the duration in bed, it’s how often you are awakened. Each of my twins was up twice last night. Both have colds and one bumped his head last evening and probably had a headache. Yes, I spent 7 1/2 hours between going to bed and arising, but I dealt four times with children during that stretch. It’s not just the quantity of “bed time”, it’s the quality. And both my twins have slept all the way through the night exactly once since their birth two years ago. (One twin or the other sleeps through with some frequency now.)

    In your analyses, I would like you to consider job stability, commute to find jobs for BOTH spouses, and “on call” time. My current best job possibility pays $70k, is ~45-60 min away, and has night and weekend call. I think this is the reality for most people- it’s not lack of time, it’s lack of CONTROL of time- both over infant and toddler sleep schedules and over work schedules.

    1. Yes, times awake matters. I’m sorry you’re getting up so frequently — there was an analysis of how many times people get out of bed related to kids from time diaries that I wrote about here:
      With kids under one, it’s 32% of moms on any given night, with kids 1-2 it’s 10%. Definitely a situation where you’d prefer to be average than yours, with them getting up every night!

  3. I have a newborn. I do not sleep straight through the night and some nights I am up with him every 2 hours (breastfeeding kind of makes that a mom thing in the beginning anyway).

    But many nights I go three or four hours and then get up and I need about 8 hours of sleep to feel normal. What they suggest to moms of young kids under six months is to go to bed and not get up until you’ve gotten your sleep allbeit in 2 or 3 hour increments. This works really well especially if you are on maternity leave or if you have a home office and can work at your will and according to projects.

    Since becoming a mom I notice I sleep lighter and get by much better on 7 hours than ever before especially if it is 7 straight hours.

    Some people do oversleep.

    I am back at work since my child is like 5 days old but for me that means that some days I don’t get out of bed until 9:30 and I work according to projects– so I put my big projects on my list and then when that is done I give up…or keep going.

    1. @Cara- welcome back to My168hours! I wondered if you’d had your baby. Congrats! Yes, the first few weeks it’s not going to be possible to sleep through the night. But in a few months, hopefully the kid will be sleeping like a champ. I actually preferred the one middle of the night feeding (sleep from 10-2:30, 3-7:30) vs. “sleeping through the night” which looked like 12-6.

  4. @Cara–Congratulations! your attitude about working on your big projects is a great start. The ebb and flow of your 168 hours will shift a lot over the next year, but your flexibility will be an asset.

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