The Importance of Sleep

I was a zombie after my son was born: with an active toddler, one of us working full-time and me working flex-time, we simply never slept. With nightly feedings, dealing with the demands of two young children, deadlines, meals and laundry, there seemed to always be a never-ending to-do list. 

But it was the (lack of) sleep that literally drove us mad.

We have all heard sleep deprivation is used for torture – and we know that going without sleep for months or years on end is a nightmare and wreaks havoc on our health.

Sleep is the buzzword for 2018 – and every health and wellness site lists it as one of the top three things you need for good health, along with a good diet and exercise. But this doesn’t exactly make sleep-deprived parents feel great. Knowing sleep is intrinsically tied to your health and affects everything from weight gain to mood disorders to your ability to function cognitively, it has become the Holy Grail of parenting. In a 2010 study, researchers highlighted the importance of sleep when they found that women who got less than five hours sleep a night suffered more premature deaths. Researchers have also shown that sleep is tied to inflammation in the body – which can lead to weight gain. Sleep also has been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the blood, which is directly related to stress. And, it affects ghrelin, the hunger hormone, which triggers you into overeating and craving sugar and carbs to keep you going.

Now, roll over in bed and hit the snooze button on that. Oh, that’s right – you can’t, you’re a parent. So, what can you do?

Sleep Facts

This is both simple and complex. First, let’s look at hours of sleep needed. The jury is out on how much sleep you need: some experts argue six to eight hours is your basic necessity, others say 8-9 hours reaps more benefits (too much sleep has its own set of hazards).  There are different types of sleep, too: REM (Rapid Eye Movement), known as dream sleep, and non-REM. Sleep is comprised of four stages – during the first stage, your body enters a drowsy state and starts to relax; in stage two, you begin to fall asleep, and in stages three and four – which are referred to as “deep sleep” – your body heals itself at the cellular level.  After you reach deep sleep you slip into REM, where dreams occur.

Sleep Strategies

Of course, most parents of young children are surviving on broken (or no) sleep and, apart from hiring a night nanny, there are a few strategies you can utilize to counteract the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation. Here are five tips to improve the quality and quantity of sleep, and your health:

1. Make a bedtime routine

Your kids need a routine, and so do you: Even if you know you are getting up with your child in a few hours, have a routine: dim the lights, create a sense of calm, and get off of your electronic devices a minimum of one hour before turning out the lights. The blue light of electronic devices directly affects your melatonin levels, which helps shift you into a sleep state. So, even if you want to check social media for “me” time before bed – think again. Scrolling your phone can hinder sleep.

2. Nap

You don’t need to fold the laundry or clean out a closet; instead, in the afternoon, try to sneak a 20-30 minute nap. It will recharge your batteries, which can really add up in your sleep bank. Don’t sleep past 3 pm as it can affect how you sleep at night.

3. Exercise during the day

Tired bodies sleep better at night. Research shows as little as ten minutes of aerobic exercise daily can improve your sleep function and quality of sleep. If you can, try and exercise outside – the fresh air and natural light will also help you fall asleep.

4. Do yoga before bed

Several restorative yoga poses have been shown to help you ease into a restful stage – yoga helps slow your breathing, calm your mind and release tension. The combination of breath and movement activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps with stress.

5. Stay Hydrated

We know we need hydration for our bodies to function properly, but going to bed even mildly dehydrated can disrupt your sleep. Dehydration causes your mouth and nasal passages to become dry, which can set you up for snoring or a parched throat, and lack of fluids can also lead to leg cramps. Dehydration compromises your energy and cognitive skills as well.


The sleepless years seem to last forever, but you can take charge. If you can hand off a nightly feeding to your spouse, do it. And remember – the days are long, but the years are short. So are the sleepless nights.

Erin Phelan is a health and fitness professional, personal trainer and writer. Find her at and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.