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How Working Parents Can Prioritize Sleep

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How Working Parents Can Prioritize Sleep
HEALTH
by Amie M. Gordon and Christopher M. Barnes
March 31, 2020
master1305/Getty Images
When you’re juggling a job, kids, and all the details of everyday life, sleep feels like a luxury you can
afford later, when your kids are grown. Instead of sleeping, parents use those precious few moments
they have at the end of the day to catch up on work or take some much needed me-time. But the
problems that come with not getting enough sleep won’t simply step aside and wait until retirement.
Sleep deprivation magnifies the challenges in an already difficult life. One area where sleep deprivation
takes its toll is on our relationships, both at home and in the workplace.
Research from across the globe has linked general sleep tendencies with relationship quality, showing
that people who sleep worse experience less satisfying relationships, particularly with romantic
partners. People are more likely to fight with their partners after a poor night of sleep, and couples have
more difficulty resolving conflicts if either partner slept worse the prior night. The effects go the other
way as well — people tend to sleep worse after fighting with their romantic partners. This creates the
possibility of a vicious cycle in which poor sleep begets conflict, and conflict begets poor sleep.
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Additionally, research suggests children who are exposed to more marital conflict tend to sleep worse,
which may have further negative effects on the parents’ sleep. In contrast, children whose parents have
higher quality relationships tend to sleep better.
Sleep also plays a role in how we relate to our children. One study found that mothers who had more
disrupted sleep were less sensitive to their 18-week-old infants than those who had more continuous
sleep. Good sleep may also be a protective factor; both parents and children who sleep better are more
resilient in the face of stressors. Overall, getting the sleep we need helps us have better relationships with
our children.
Although our sleep tends to happen at home, we bring the consequences of poor sleep into the
workplace, too. Leaders who report sleeping worse tend to engage in more abusive behaviors toward
their employees (such as yelling at them in front of their colleagues) and have damaged relationships
with those employees. Sleep-deprived leaders are also less charismatic and generally less effective in
their leadership roles. Research indicates that overall, businesses benefit when employees are well rested.
Deprioritizing sleep is one way to deal with the heavy demands on a working parent’s limited time, but
the consequences are clear: Both at home and in the workplace, relationships are worse when people
don’t prioritize their sleep.
So, what is a time-famished working parent to do?
Since physicists have yet to unlock the secrets to freezing time, working parents must turn to more
feasible means to get a good night of sleep. Here are a few evidence-based tips to help working parents
take care of themselves and create good sleeping practices when it seems like there is no time to do so.
Getting good sleep won’t give you more time, but it will help you make better use of the time you have.
Make sleep a priority.
Recognize that your days will feel more productive if you get enough sleep, which can give you a sense of
having more time. There’s always the desire to fit in “one last thing” or put off going to sleep, but a good
night of sleep will give you much-needed resources to deal with the demands of daily life. Figure out how
much sleep you need to feel well-rested (the recommendation in the U.S. is seven to nine hours for
adults). Decide what time you need to wake up in the morning, then count backwards. Set a bedtime
alarm, giving yourself an extra 30 minutes to an hour to unwind and get ready for bed each night.
Creating a relaxing bedtime routine for the whole family (dim lights, relaxing music, stories in bed)
might be one way to get everyone to wind down together.
Set a consistent sleep routine for yourself and your children.
One of the best ways to sleep well is to have a consistent sleep routine. This tells your body when to wake
up and when to go to sleep so that it releases melatonin at the right time, making it easier to fall asleep
and stay asleep. A consistent routine won’t just get you more sleep, it will get you more high-quality
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sleep. Keep this routine both on the days you’re working and the days you’re not. Although it is enticing,
using the weekends to do a major “catch-up” on sleep is actually counterproductive. Sleeping in late will
feel good that day, but it throws off your body clock and fails to address the larger issue of having a
consistent schedule that allows enough time for sleep on a daily basis. Children, even teens, get more
sleep when parents help structure the child’s sleep schedule.
Limit exposure to blue light at night.
Blue light tells your body it’s daytime, which can mess with your sleep. Smartphones, computers, and
tablets emit this blue light, which can disrupt your sleep. To prevent this, use blue-light filters (built into
most tablets and smartphones) or wear blue-light blocking glasses when using a screen in the hours
leading up to your bedtime routine. On the other hand, exposure to bright blue light in the morning is a
great way to start your day. Exposure to bright light when you first wake up helps set your circadian
rhythm and lets your body know it’s time to be alert.
Keep screens out of your bedroom.
In an ever-connected world, working parents may want to check their email one last time or scroll
through Twitter for a few minutes after they’re in bed. But a big part of good sleep hygiene is giving your
body a chance to unwind before you fall asleep. We also tend to lack self-regulation the more tired we
get, so while you might only intend to go online for a few minutes, those handful of minutes can quickly
turn into an hour or more. Leave your screens outside the room — or put them in airplane mode before
you get in bed.
Quit while you’re ahead.
We’ve all wanted to stay up just a little longer to finish the task we’re working on. But if you’re trying to
work when it’s time to go to bed, you’re going to be more inefficient and make more mistakes. Instead,
stick to your bedtime and return to your task the next day when you’ll be refreshed, thinking clearly, and
can get it done in half the time.
Don’t stress about those inevitable nights of poor sleep.
While a consistent sleep routine is great, everyone experiences poor sleep at some point. Worrying about
your sleep can become a problem of its own. Instead, recognize that your body is resilient and can handle
short-term sleep problems, and find ways to destress before bed to help you relax and sleep well.
Beyond ways to make your sleep more consistent and habitual, consider these relationship-based
strategies prevent the inevitable conflicts that can arise out of lack of sleep:
Don’t start talking about serious matters right before bed.
Although you’ve likely been told to never go to bed angry, a good night of sleep might also help you deal
more constructively with conflict. If you can, save serious matters for a time when you’re both awake
and have the energy to talk. This may seem impossible, but like sleep, building in time to talk when you
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aren’t tired can help the rest of your relationship run more smoothly. You can apply this to your
workplace as well — don’t wait until the end of the day when you’re worn out to deal with difficult
conversations or important brainstorming sessions.
Give your family and colleagues the benefit of the doubt.
The people in your life are likely just as tired as you are, so if your partner forgets to call you on their way
home from work, assume it’s because they had a difficult workday and not because they don’t value your
time. If your child is only giving one-word answers at dinner, remind yourself they may just be
exhausted from an active day at school and not uninterested in what you have to say. And when your
colleague forgets to confirm a meeting, check to see how they’re doing personally before writing them
off as unreliable.
Work together as efficiently as possible to reduce decision fatigue and inefficiency.
Have explicit conversations at home about household and childcare duties so that everyone is on the
same page. Create a shared grocery list online so that anyone can add items to it. Create and share
calendars so that you don’t have to have a big discussion each time one of you is trying to schedule a
task. Reducing unnecessary work can help free up time for the things you really need, like sleep.
If you and your partner have different sleeping times, make the most of it.
Having a different bedtime from your partner might seem problematic when your schedules don’t
overlap — whether those differences are due to personal preferences or work schedules. However, you
may be able to leverage this difference by putting the person who wakes up early in charge of the
morning routine and the night owl in charge of bedtime.
Buy time where you can.
If you can afford it, buy yourself time to sleep by paying other people to do some of your work for you,
like housecleaning or grocery delivery. Research indicates that people who buy time tend to be happier.
Look into the possibility of flextime.
If your job allows it, being able to work from home or shape your work schedule around your family
might help you feel less stressed and sleep better. For example, if you’re an early riser, you might benefit
from working at home in the morning before your family gets up and adjusting your hours accordingly.
Consider being flexible with your family time as well. For instance, some families with full schedules
might find that breakfast together works better than the traditional family dinner, so you can devote
those evening hours to attending your children’s extracurricular activities, cementing a toddler’s bedtime
routine, or unwinding after a long day, without the added stress of meal prep.
When you feel like you have no time to sleep is exactly when you need sleep the most. Finding a way to
prioritize consistent, high-quality sleep can help you better navigate the demands of your everyday life,
from better interactions with your family to better sleep for your children to better relationships at work.
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Amie M. Gordon is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she directs the Well-
being, Health, and Interpersonal Relationships Lab (WHIRL). She received her PhD in social-personality psychology from the University
of California, Berkeley.
Christopher M. Barnes is an associate professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.
He worked in the Fatigue Countermeasures branch of the Air Force Research Laboratory before pursuing his PhD in Organizational
Behavior at Michigan State University.
This article is about HEALTH
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1 COMMENTS
Aimee Eddy 9 minutes ago
Despite all family units being varied in modern day society, I believe a few aspects are missing from this article.
1) Recognising that Children of school age are not required to have an entire day of educational activities.
2) Exercising as a family helps to establish routine, release endorphins, kickstart the day and it enables an opportunity to open a
dialogue between parents and children to talk about any family or personal issues. This does not need to be strenuous, a simple
walk or bike ride is extremely valuable
3) Take advantage of this period to recognise your partners day-to-day workload and mental load. Being respectful and curious of
your partners mental health (and your own) will also provide things to operate more efficiently. This period of time is the best
opportunity to strengthen family dialogue through open and honest conversations with the whole family.
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