Miles to Go …

by Rachael on January 10, 2012

Welcome to the January 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Experiments in Natural Family Living

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month participants report on week-long trials to make their lives a little greener. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

— from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost

Sleep deprivation is part of my business plan. I work more or less full time, but the Critter is in school only part time; ergo, I make up the difference by working at night — and sometimes (often) late into the night. Although I think and write a lot about making my way toward work-life balance, I can’t think of anything else that could throw off anyone’s balance more than not getting enough sleep.

In fact, according to researchers at the University of Chicago, the effects of sleep deprivation may be more than simply dulled intelligence, a short temper, and general sluggishness. As reported in an article by Jane Brody for the New York Times, sleeplessness may also result in weight gain, diabetes, and high blood pressure, and it impedes the body’s ability to process carbohydrates, manage stress, keep hormones in balance, and fight infections.

Off balance, indeed. Therefore, for my week-long experiment in natural living, I decided to see what life is like with enough sleep. Which, of course, immediately raised the obvious question …

What Is Natural?

More and more, it seems, the convergent Western cultures of work and entertainment aspire to make machines of us all, to create an electronic, robotized atemporality that conflicts with the biological constraints inherent in being human. (That it’s possible to regard our biology as a “constraint” suggests how far we’ve already gone in this direction.) Visible fatigue is an acceptable pledge of earnestness and ambition … The only individuals who seem content are the ones who cheerfully announce how little sleep they need, and they are often making it up.

— from “Awakening to Sleep” by Verlyn Klinkenborg

In his 1997 New York Times Magazine article on sleep — or really, on sleep deprivation — Klinkenborg cites the most obvious reason why it is so easy for us to deprive ourselves of needed sleep: artificial light, which alienates us from the seasonal and diurnal rhythms of light and dark. He writes, “We live in an artificial environment with an altered light-dark cycle, including, obviously, less exposure to true darkness and, perhaps not so obviously, less exposure to bright natural light because so many people work indoors.” I’ve long been fascinated by a study Klinkenborg discusses in his article (which, yes, I’ve kept in my files in the fifteen years since it was first published). The study was led by Thomas Wehr, then chief of the Clinical Psychology Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health. In the study, volunteers spent the hours from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. in darkness every night for a month or more. In other words, the volunteers were subjected to the length of a midwinter’s night in the Washington D.C. area, where the study was conducted. After about three weeks, a pattern emerged. Volunteers slept about eight hours every night, but the sleep was not consolidated. Writes Klinkenborg,

Each night the volunteers lay in a state of quiet rest for two hours before passing abruptly into sleep. They slept in an evening bout that lasted four hours. Then they awoke out of REM sleep into another two hours of quiet rest, followed by another four-hour bout of sleep and another two hours of quiet rest before rising at 8 a.m. This pattern of divided sleep, separated by rest, is called a bimodal distribution of sleep, and it is typical of the sleep of many mammals living in the wild, which is to say that it is atypical of humans living in modern Western society.

What’s more, writes Klinkenborg, “subjects remarked that never before had they felt awake.” And so I wonder, is all of our artificially supported wakefulness actually depriving us of true wakefulness? What would that be like?

On the other hand, argues Dr. Jerry Siegel at the Huffington Post, let’s not romanticize the past too much. He writes, “Our distant ancestors slept on rocks, dirt, unheated caves or trees. Variations in temperature went far outside our comfort zone, and unregulated light levels, insects, rain, snow, noises, hunger, untreated pain, and predation by ‘lions, tigers and bears’ — not to mention other humans — would have disturbed sleep far beyond what most of us experience in the twenty-first century.”

It seems, therefore, that what is natural when it comes to sleep is unknown — and probably unknowable. Furthermore, I was neither particularly willing nor able to spend fourteen hours in bed every night for a week. So, for the purposes of my experiment, I decided to get at least the recommended average of eight hours of sleep every night for at least a week, beginning on the night of Friday, December 23.

Is Eight Really Enough?

Technically, I never even got to bed on the night of Friday, December 23; I was up past midnight, determined to wrap up a project that had been going on and on since August. But we were at my dad’s house for the holidays, so the next morning he and my stepmom got the Critter dressed and took him out, while Brian and I slept, and slept, and slept … until 9:30! When is the last time I’ve slept that late? I honestly have no idea. And then on Christmas morning, Brian let me sleep that late again — oh, glory!

Except that each morning I woke up feeling sluggish and unmotivated to do much more than eat a bowl of cold cereal. That pattern held all three mornings we were at my dad’s house: Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day. I don’t know, though, how much the sluggishness had to do with my suddenly getting more sleep as it did with my being not so tightly wound as usual. Apparently, I rely on my anxiety to power me through my days.

After we returned to Brooklyn, the pattern shifted. Mornings were no longer a problem, but every night as I was making dinner, I noticed that all I wanted to do was go to bed. It wasn’t so much that I felt tired. It was simply that it was dark, it had been dark for a while, and it was going to go on and on being dark for hours. Didn’t I belong in bed?

A couple nights I did end up going to bed much earlier than I had planned, including the night of Sunday, January 1. But even then, after more than a week of nights of full sleep — or more-than-full sleep — I had trouble waking up on Monday morning. My conclusion: One week is not enough. Eight hours is not enough. When it comes to sleep debt, I’m in real deep.

What Next?

So many things were unusual about my week of — well, if not quite enough, then certainly way-more-than-usual, almost-enough — sleep that it’s difficult to know which aspects of my experience to attribute to which factors. We spent time with family in Connecticut. We celebrated a major holiday. I wasn’t on my usual work schedule. The Critter was home from school. Plus, I was (am) pregnant. Plus, the sun was setting before 5:00 p.m. and rising after 7:00 a.m. Yes, I felt much less anxious and cranky than usual. Freer, even. But yes, there I was on Friday night, sitting on the kitchen floor, crying. (That, my dear friends, is what winter does to me, alas.)

What’s most telling is how I feel now, finishing up this post on the night of Tuesday, January 3, after a more typical night of six hours of sleep followed by a typical workday. I feel … ragged. Whatever I had last week? I want more of that.

Clearly, my business plan has to change, which is much, much easier to see than to work out in theory — let alone practice. For one thing, I need to be making fewer promises. On Thursday, I’ll be sharing what I’ve worked out so far.

What about you — do you generally get enough sleep?
If so, how do you manage it?
If you don’t, what are the consequences — for you,
and for your family?


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Lauren @ Hobo Mama January 10, 2012 at 7:17 AM

Fascinating! I read half your article out loud to my husband. I’d read before about how humans haven’t always slept in these consolidated blocks, and it was so intriguing to me — to think of not being upset at waking up for a couple hours after four hours of sleep, you know? But, as you mentioned, you’d have to have a good fourteen hours to devote to getting the full sleep you needed if you went that leisurely route.

I’d say I often get enough sleep. I like it a lot. My problem is staying up too late, so then I sleep in most every day. My husband has lately been supporting me in this habit, but I should probably give him a break! It’s getting old to be playing the newborn card…


MamaPsalmist January 10, 2012 at 12:13 PM

Hah! Lauren, just this week my husband told me that I am no longer allowed to claim my (almost) 10 month old as a newborn, and me staying in bed to nurse her until late in the morning is APPARENTLY not working out for the rest of the family.

But my dear daughter has definitely gotten the memo on bimodal sleep patterns. I have usually just gotten to sleep when her first block of consolidated sleep ends, so her ‘quiet rest’ (characterized by her sitting up and clapping) is met with groggy begging for more sleep.

We currently live in Alaska where sleep problems run amok. Everyone sleeps the winter away and tries to store up the energy to survive the insomnia of no darkeness in the summer. Ah, the eternal battle!


Ana @ Pandamoly January 10, 2012 at 11:40 AM

It’s amazing how much an appropriate night of sleep helps make you feel better (awkward sentence, sorry, I happened to get only 5 hours of sleep last night). This is one of those things I personally really need to work on. I stay up late, have to get up early, then am tired all day but repeat the same cycle day after day.

Thank you for the information!


Dionna @ Code Name: Mama January 10, 2012 at 12:22 PM

I can’t believe you are still working at such a pace whilst pregnant! I was a zombie my first pregnancy – falling asleep at 8pm and waking at 6am, at least in the first trimester. This time I wasn’t quite as sleepy, but I still needed more sleep than usual! And I’m one of those who claim to need less sleep than a normal person 😉 Fascinating read, and I hope you can find more hours to devote to sleep!


Paige @ Baby Dust Diaries January 10, 2012 at 1:17 PM

What a wonderful post! I have clinical depression. I tell people that zoloft saved me from the brink but SLEEP is what cured me (or allowed me to manage my depression). My sister started getting more sleep and lost 20lbs without any other change to her lifestyle! I really agree that sleep is so so important. Have you read about how our kids are getting less sleep than previous generations?

I’ve been a SAHM since october so my experiment on sleep has had mixed results as well. I really think part of it is a HABIT of being tired. My mind is programmed to be tired and to crave sleep because I’ve had a decade of that at work. I feel like I’m fighting my attitude of tiredness before I can see results from normal sleep.


Lucy January 10, 2012 at 1:28 PM

Sleep debt is mysterious and cumulative. This summer, when I finally stopped a lot things that were both anxiety and adrenaline producing, I was so tired – inexplicably tired. In fact, it brought to mind a phrase from one of your poems from long ago: “my dreams exhaust me.” What ever happened to that poem? Perhaps it will find a home (besides being in my head and in the others who heard you read it) if it hasn’t already. Sweet dreams.


Deb @ Living Montessori Now January 10, 2012 at 8:47 PM

Great post, Rachael! I need to try your experiment, too … I’m terrible about not getting enough sleep. It’s strange how hard it is to allow enough time for something as basic as sleep.


CatholicMommy January 10, 2012 at 10:21 PM

I usually get 8+ hours, although that’s punctuated by a few night-nursing stints. My husband often lets me have another hour in the morning, since he’s not waking in the middle of the night. I like the “quiet rest” phase description — sounds like my little guy sometimes!


Michelle January 10, 2012 at 11:21 PM

I also tend to stay up late writing or working and then end up getting shorted on sleep, but since I got back from travelling I have been more likely to be in bed reading at 10pm than sitting up at the computer. It’s dark, and it just feels SO GOOD to be lying horizontal in a soft bed. I hope you can rearrange your daytime schedule or work commitments so that you can get enough sleep – cumulative sleep dep is no fun at all.


Christine @ African Babies Don't Cry January 12, 2012 at 3:42 PM

I need tons of sleep, or should I say like tons of sleep? 😉
One of my new years resolutions was to stop sleeping in and get up at 6am every morning, which is al well and good but I still end up going to bed past midnight so now I end up passing out when I put my son down for a nap… still have the same amount of hours in a day :/


mumsyjr January 16, 2012 at 10:05 AM

I do get close to enough most nights- but I find I need more like 9 hours than 8. But I was reading up on the effects of sleep deprivation at an impressionable age so I’m kind of weird about guarding my sleep. I think I may think of myself as a sort of sleep rebel: “damn you modern society, you will not rob ME of my delta rhythms and REM with your bullshit puritan work ethic standards and false promises of fulfillment via outer approval!” sort of thing. I will sacrifice a grade letter or extra income if I think it’s gonna cut into my sleep unless it is genuinely imperative. I make short cuts for mornings so I can carve out extra half hours or more- I’ll skip showers, I’ll lay clothes out before bed like I’m in second grade, that kind of thing. I shut off TV and computer 2 hours before bedtime because I know I will not feel sleepy if I leave them on. But I’ll throw my kid in front of one or the other of an afternoon so I can finish the stuff I’m not staying up late to do. I’m kind of a nut. But a well rested one.


Amber January 22, 2012 at 12:13 AM

I get about 7 hours a night most nights, and I think it’s OK for me. I’ve more or less adjusted at this point. What really is an issue for me is when my sleep is interrupted. Once, or even twice, I can handle. But if I don’t get at least one four hour stretch, it’s not good. It led to some postpartum depression when my daughter was a baby, in fact.


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