Every time I fly the flight attendants are required to do a mini lecture about what I should do if the plane did a Boeing 787 Max 8, and I was spiraling to the ground in a 90,000 pound bullet. I’m told to fasten my seat belt, and take note of the emergency exits. Then, there is always a part about the oxygen masks that will fall from the ceiling above my head:
Oxygen and the air pressure are always being monitored. In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it.1
Has it ever occurred to you that securing your mask first is awfully selfish? If you’re traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, shouldn’t you help them first? Of course, you know the answer. If you don’t take care of yourself, you might pass out before you finish helping your companions, and then everyone dies. In other words, if you aren’t in a position to function properly, you are no help to anyone.
I recently had the great opportunity to interview Ms. Maureen McQuillan from Indiana University, who co-authored a paper entitled, “Maternal stress, sleep, and parenting”.2 Ms. McQuillan makes a strong argument that, just like the airline passenger, when parents take care of themselves, they are able to raise their children with more positive behaviors, such as warmth and responsiveness.
Ms. McQuillan’s study demonstrates the connections between a mother’s sleep quality, her stress levels, and her ability to use positive parenting strategies, particularly during her child’s bedtime routine. These positive parenting strategies likely have important downstream effects for both children’s sleep and their development, as they have been linked with reductions in child behavior problems, for example (Kaminski & Claussen, 2017).3
For all of the parents out there, Ms. McQuillan offers these three pieces of advice to improve your sleep and maybe your child’s sleep, too:
- Get on a consistent sleep schedule. All too often we’re tempted to allow our sleep schedules to fluctuate in an effort to catch up on work and household tasks during the work week and then catch up on sleep on the weekends, but this can have a jet lag effect on our sleep schedules, especially for kids (yes, let’s keep the plane metaphors going). To avoid inconsistent sleep schedules, try to keep your bedtimes and wake times to the same schedule every day, with no more than an hour variation from day to day.
- Practice a consistent bedtime routine, especially for your child. Children love routines and knowing what to expect. Practicing a consistent routine at bedtime filled with soothing, bonding activities like book reading will help your child settle to sleep each night.
- Avoid using electronic screens like the tv, iPad, phone, or laptop during the hour before bed. The blue light emitted from these devices can suppress melatonin secretion necessary to help you and your child fall asleep. For other tips on bedtime routines, visit this site that summarizes some of Maureen’s ongoing research: sleeptrain.psych.indiana.edu
I don’t know about you, but my sleep patterns are definitely connected to my mood, and my ability to be kind and rational in the face of the tugs of everyday life. If I don’t get at least 8 hours, I’m a true basket case. My wife might be at the breakfast table, and say, “Can you pass the salt?” And I’ll say, “Oh, right. Here we go again with this crap. Can I pass the salt! Like I don’t know what you’re really trying to say.”
All kidding aside, haven’t you noticed that, when you’re not well-rested, particularly if your lack of rest is due to some stressful situation that is floating around in your brain and not letting go, that you are a fraction of your usual self? If your lack of rest continues for too long, can you feel your inner Cersei Lannister or Ramsey Bolton arising in your soul?
And yet, many parents consider a lack of sleep to be “just part of parenting.” Now, of course, there are going to be times when you have to wake up earlier than you want to, or you are going to be vicariously worrying on behalf of your children. But over the long term, it is important for you to take care of yourself — address your stress, and seek out times to relax and sleep — so that you can be the best version of yourself to your spouse, your children, your friends and coworkers, and yes, yourself.
In the words of an old friend of mine, “there are so many moms who are just drowning in doubt and stress.” How I wish I could encourage those nameless mothers (and fathers) whose doubt and stress need to be assuaged by good sleep, and good cognitive restructuring therapy. In the long run, all your children need is food, water, shelter, safety, and the knowledge that you love them without a shadow of a doubt. Get in touch if you’d like some help thinking through how you might make today a new day, and grab hold of your true potential.
2. McQuillan, M. E., Bates, J. E., Staples, A. D., & Deater-Deckard, K. (2019). Maternal stress, sleep, and parenting. Journal of Family Psychology, 33 (3), 349-359. doi: 10.1037/fam0000516
3. Kaminski, J. W., & Claussen, A. H. (2017). Evidence base update for psychosocial treatments for disruptive behaviors in children. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 46(4), 477-499. doi: 10.1080/15374416.2017.1310044