Sleep Deprivation

February 2, 2010

I think about sleep alot. I think about it alot, I just don’t do it alot. Many parents of children with developmental disabiities complain about the sleep deprivation involved in caring for our sons and daughters. Lauren will go for a period of time when between 10pm and 7am I don’t hear a peep out of her. We’ve slept with a monitor in our room every day of her life. Then she will have a week or two where she’s very restless, moving around, knocking into the side of the bed. When she’s like that you can’t really sleep well because you’re constantly alert making sure that the sounds you’re hearing are just her tossing and turning and not a seizure. Then there are the nights when she just doesn’t want to sleep. The other night she wanted up at 1 a.m.  She was quite happy and full of energy until I finally convinced her at four a.m. that she needed to go back to sleep. The next night she had a seizure at five a.m. and took awhile to settle back down. By the time she gets back into a regular sleep schedule, my sleep schedule is trashed. So, the end result is that the quantity and quality of sleep I get is not sufficient.

What is the effect of sleep deprivation on the brain and the body?  Todd Maddox, a psychology professor at the Institute for Neuroscinece at the University of Texas in Austin states that, “The brain regions that are impaired when you are sleep-deprived are the same ones that are impaired with aging," That must be why I stand in front of the pantry with no idea why I need to be there in the first place. And, I just love sitting in a meeting waiting to share some pearl of wisdom while another speaker finishes their statement, only to forget it by the time they’re done. I do know that when I manage to get a decent night's sleep my mood is much brighter the next day. I don’t think it's simply a lack of fatigue or a renewal of energy.  I seem more optimistic, less reactionary, less anxious. Professor Maddox explains that when you are sleep-deprived you overthink things, and when you do that you are actually using the part of your brain most affected by the lack of sleep.  So you are not only overthinking things, you are doing a really bad job of it.

Research shows that sleep deprivation results in attentional lapses, reduced short-term memory capacity, and impaired judgement. Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to serious mental symptoms and threaten public and personal safety. Studies also show that sleep deprivation puts us at higher risk for a number of health issues such as high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and obesity. As a society we have all been at risk since the advent of the lightbulb around 1910 which resulted in people sleeping five hundred hours less a year than they did before. As parents of children with developmental disabilities we rarely get an opporunity or ever have the option of “catching up” on our sleep. I know of one family with a son who sleeps three to five hours a night and screams throughout his waking hours. The dad gets up with his son, so that his wife can sleep in order that she can get through her day with the boy, then Dad goes off to work. How long can a family be expected to function like that?

After 24 years of sleepless nights I know first hand that it wears you down. I think we need to take sleep or rather the lack of it seriously, and realize how much it is affecting our ability to function, our moods, and our health. Just as we pop our vitamins in the morning and watch our diets, we need to take whatever actions necessary to try to alleviate the affect that sleep deprivation has on our well-being. I’m not sure if that is possible, but I’m going to take my first step right now. I’m going to take a nap.

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