Blog Posts 1–5, based on the United States of America Department of the Army Field Manual: Holistic Healing and Fitness, describe what really matters for your child’s sleep. If sleep is an important enough topic for national defense than surely sleep should be considered a serious topic for parenting!
When you are short on sleep, your body reacts in a predictable way. You feel ‘keyed up’ because your body produces stimulating chemicals such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. This results in a burst of energy commonly known as a second wind. The second wind is like a turbo boost and enabled early humans to fight harder, hunt prey longer, and flee predators faster even when short on sleep. Think of it as an adaptive biological response that evolved for survival value. When you catch your second wind, you are in a state of higher neurological arousal. You might feel more wired, turned on, or full of ‘nervous energy’. You also become more prickly or hypersensitive, just as a bad sunburn will make even a light touch painful. If you suddenly go on a vacation, it may take you a few days to ‘unwind’ as your body dissipates these stimulating chemicals.
In a young child, this state of hyperarousal is most obvious in the late afternoon or early evening when her sleep tank is almost empty and she is running on fumes because of missed naps, bedtimes that are too late, or both. For example, your child might have a total meltdown late in the afternoon at a family holiday after many hours of travel and many hours without sleep.
But the second wind can occur whenever a period of wakefulness before a nap is too long. The result is difficulty falling asleep for a nap, or the nap is too short, or the nap is missed entirely. Before a nap or bedtime, a parent might observe: “She’s so tired and wants to go to sleep, but she can’t!”
When the bedtime is often a little too late, your child wakes up a little too tired, with higher neurological arousal that then causes her to have difficulty napping well. Not napping well causes her sleep tank to trend toward empty by the end of the day and this results in an even higher state of arousal, so it now becomes even more difficult for her to easily fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. “Pre-sleep arousal” is the term used by sleep researchers to describe this state. Parents might not appreciate that bedtime battles, long latency to sleep (taking a long time to fall asleep), or night waking result from a bedtime that is too late.
Of course, she eventually crashes. But before she does so, she is in an unhealthy state of high ‘nervous energy’that gives rise to stressful parent–child interactions, stressful interactions between parents, and stress for each parent as an individual. Additionally, because the bedtime was too late, your child may not receive the benefits of healthy sleep—the very deep restorative sleep periods that naturally occur early in the evening.
It’s a vicious circle: Sleeplessness begets sleeplessness.
Understanding how sleep deprivation causes a second wind that makes it more difficult to easily fall asleep and stay asleep also leads to a deeper appreciation of the opposite situation: Being well rested allows your child to more easily fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.
It’s also a virtuous circle: Sleep begets sleep.
It’s not logical, it’s biological!
(To be continued)