How the Emerging Science of Sleep Is Making Me a Better Father

Sleep deprivation in adolescents and teens is strongly associated with suicide, the second leading cause of death of teenagers.

Image for post
Image for post

My “lazy” teenage self was right. Now, armed with a lot more knowledge, I aim my best I-told-you-so stare at my father. Of course, at the time he didn’t know any of the facts below as they are pretty new. Still, in my incredibly petty way, I feel vindicated because he was wrong. Below are a few facts that have impacted the way I parent in providing an environment that fosters brain development and mental health for my daughters and how I behave as a husband and father.

I once thought that circadian rhythms were akin to astrology but then a Nobel Prize was won by scientists who proved the circadian rhythms operate at the genetic level. The science I get into below draws from said research so if you are like me, you may want to learn more about circadian rhythms to give better context to the data. It’s pretty impressive information and you will not be disappointed!

Night Owls and Early Birds Are Genetic Dispositions

Theorized through the lens of evolution, early humans may have split their sleeping times into shifts to best protect their tribe from predation resulting in Night Owls and Early Birds as descendants of these protective hominids. Unfortunately, Night Owls suffer a disadvantage in our society whose workday starts in the early morning forcing the late-night cohort to show up to work fatigued and over-caffeinated. There’s even a term coined for this phenomenon; social jetlag. Because of the constant sleep deprivation, Night Owls earn lower grades in university while Early Birds are less likely to fall into depression and addictions like smoking, drinking, and drugs.

It’s not all bad for the Owls however as they appear to be more creative, they demonstrate a higher cognitive ability (especially at night), and are less risk-averse. These particular circadian dispositions emerge throughout early adulthood so we can’t tell what kids’ sleep needs will be until they’re on their own. Given the above, perhaps companies should consider splitting the workday where Early Birds can start early and Night Owls can roll in later. If you fall under the Night Owl banner and have a flexible workday, perhaps you can shift your work to better suit your sleeping requirement. After learning this my wife and I have made accommodations for my Early Bird lifestyle and my wife’s Night Owl ways.

Let Teenagers Sleep In!

Teenagers’ circadian clock requires their brains to stay up later (passed after mom and dad’s clocks) and need to sleep later to best develop their brains. This is not lazy teenage behavior, it’s genetically hardwired. Mathew Walker, author of the groundbreaking Why We Sleep points out that 72% of parents feel that their teens are getting enough sleep while it appears that only 11% of teenagers are actually sleeping enough. This, Walker continues, creates a stigma that is carried on by the sleepless teens as they become parents and continues the tension created between a parent who sees their teen as lazy instead of recognizing that sleeping in a part of an active part of brain development.

As parents, we can accommodate without persisting the stigma, and to not accommodate can be fatal. Sleep deprivation in adolescents and teens is strongly associated with suicide, the second leading cause of death of teenagers. Let them sleep in and enjoy the quiet mornings. Win-win?

Forgetting Is a Part of Remembering

I’ve been riding the memory improvement train for years. There’s nothing more frustrating, and humiliating, than when I want to say a particular word or find an item I’ve misplaced and my mind draws a blank. As middle-age approached, the fears of losing my memory completely rose to pivot me towards the latest supplements, vitamins, brain games, and my near-obsession with nutrition. What I’ve come to learn is that when we sleep our brains filters out what it feels we need to remember and tosses the rest. We simply cannot remember every single moment and it is likely evolutionarily advantageous.

The simple fact of the matter is that we don’t want to remember everything. At best it would be cumbersome and at worst, overwhelming. After letting go of my need to remember as much as I possibly can I’ve noticed that I remember whatever I need and if I want to remember anything else, I just write it down. Low-tech I know, but it works and it’s anxiety-free. I’ve let go of all the supplementation but I’m still on the nutrition wagon.

Driving Drowsy Is as Bad as Driving Drunk

Even with eight hours of sleep after being awake for fifteen to nineteen hours, there is a significant loss of attention and response times. These deficits were similar to individuals who were at the legal driving limit of alcohol intoxication. Consider someone with eight hours of sleep waking up at 7 am and going out to socialize after work. By 10 pm, without any alcohol, this individual is impaired in both attentiveness and response as someone who is legally too drunk to drive. The attention loss suffered in far less time when the participants slept less the night before.

In the study, attentiveness was measured as a series of beeps to which the respondents would respond as quickly as they could. The response times themselves were negligible but something more severe happened. Some beeps were missed entirely. Sometimes more than one in a row. The difference between noticing or not noticing a child in front of you while you drive. Statistics also show that more deaths occur in car accidents from drowsy drivers than in drunk drivers.

The health experts and sickness experts (medical doctors) telling us that we should get enough rest has almost become a cliche and we need to recognize and appreciate its significance. Creating an effective sleep habit can improve your day-to-day life and extend your life. Living on less sleep can disrupt your work, loving relationships, and shorten your life. Understanding how we can best provide our children with optimum health advantages like an environment that allows them to rest will help them flourish.

Written by

Father of daughters, volunteer, author of Before I Leave You: A Memoir on Suicide, Addiction, and Healing. Co-founder Assent Compliance #LGBTQIA+ 🏳️‍🌈

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store