Elusive, invigorating, dreamy, primal... No, we’re not talking steamy. We’re talking sleep. Sleep! Restful sleep. Consistent sleep. Can you think of anything sexier? We cannot.
Studies have long proved the necessity of good sleep to prevent chronic illness, increase mental and physical performance, and help our moods—but today we took a more granular deep dive into the ever-elusive S-word—sleep—with Sarah Kate McGowan, Ph.D, DBSM, a board-certified Clinical Psychologist with a speciality in behavioral sleep medicine. To put it casually, Dr. McGowan knows sleep—its benefits, its history and, of course, its challenges.
Read on to learn the science behind our collective sleep culture, how pregnancy affects sleep, and what you can do to meaningfully improve the quality of your zzz’s.
The Science Behind 8 to 10 Hours
You’ve surely heard that eight to ten hours is the ideal amount of sleep for adults. But how did that magic number come to be? “Every individual has a different sleep need, but most people need somewhere between six to nine hours of sleep. It’s a bit of a myth that ‘everyone’ needs eight hours of sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night. Getting enough sleep each night for your body is important, but don’t stress if you’re not hitting eight hours each night. In fact, sleeping too much per night has similar negative health outcomes as sleeping too little each night. That’s why it’s important to figure out how much sleep is optimal for your body and then aim to get that amount each night,” Dr. McGowan says.
"It’s important to figure out how much sleep is optimal for your body and then aim to get that amount each night."
Learning Your Sleep Sweet Spot
Once you’ve landed on your optimal amount of sleep, “it’s important to consistently get the right amount of sleep for your body each night. When it comes to sleep, consistency is key. If you are someone who needs seven hours of sleep, you want to make sure that you protect those seven hours each night. And you want that schedule to be roughly the same time each night. This helps to strengthen your circadian clock and helps your body learn the routine, which will then make it easier to sleep,” Dr. McGowan explains.
Does consistency supersede the amount of sleep you get? Can we somehow bio-hack our bodies into a consistent five hour schedule so we can magically cram in *all the things?* Sadly, no. “Consistency in amount and timing of sleep is important as we’ve discussed, but consistency will not mask getting an inadequate amount of sleep. Many people are chronically sleep deprived and although they may feel that they are coping with less sleep, chronic sleep deprivation has consequences. People who are chronically sleep deprived can have slower reaction times, difficulty with memory and concentration, as well as other negative health consequences like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It’s important to prioritize your sleep similarly to diet and exercise as part of healthy practices,” Dr. McGowan explains.
Pregnancy and Sleep Quality
“Sleep during pregnancy is important as your body is going through significant changes and getting adequate sleep will help promote health for you and the baby. Unfortunately, for many individuals, pregnancy is a time of increased sleep disturbance due to these physical, psychological and hormonal changes. We see increased rates of insomnia, especially in later stages of pregnancy as well as increases in sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. Sleep architecture, which means the stages of sleep that we cycle through during the night, changes in later stages of pregnancy. Individuals in later stages of pregnancy may experience shorter sleep duration, poorer sleep quality, decreased time in deep sleep, and less REM sleep.
"Sleep architecture, which means the stages of sleep that we cycle through during the night, changes in later stages of pregnancy. "
“It’s important to note that all of these sleep disorders are treatable. Many pregnancy-related sleep disorders, like sleep apnea and restless legs syndrom, will go away after pregnancy. And issues like insomnia can be treated behaviorally during pregnancy. I’ve worked with many individuals in different stages of pregnancy and postpartum to help their sleep get back on track. It’s important to talk to your doctor about any sleep concerns you have during pregnancy,” Dr. McGowan says.
Fatigue and the 4th Trimester
As parents know, “the first few months after childbirth are rough. The baby will not be able to sleep through the night for several months meaning that parents are up several times throughout the night. The adage ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ is a good one at first. The most important thing for new parents to remind themselves is that this won’t last forever. Their babies will eventually sleep through the night and their sleep will also improve with time. If it doesn’t and parents are having difficulty sleeping even when their baby is starting to sleep more, this is a good time to speak with your doctor and consider a referral to a behavioral sleep medicine specialist.
“Big life changes, like having a child, can be the precipitating event that starts a period of insomnia for some people. Unfortunately, some of the strategies we use to try to ‘fix’ the problem actually perpetuate the problem and an insomnia disorder can emerge. The good news is that we have effective treatments for insomnia, the gold standard being Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). This is a behavioral treatment that involves meeting with a behavioral sleep specialist to learn about strategies to help improve the quality of your sleep to help you retrain your brain to sleep. You can find a behavioral sleep specialist in your area at this link or by finding a provider who is board-certified in behavioral sleep medicine (the degree is called a DBSM) or is trained in CBT-I,” Dr. McGowan says.
Improving Your Sleep Quality
“The biggest tip for improving sleep is to make sure that you prioritize and protect your sleep times. Ideally, you should aim for a regular schedule most days out of the week,” Dr. McGowan says. “Go to bed when you feel sleepy. Use your bed for sleep and sexual activity only. And don’t spend excessive time in bed when not sleeping,” she suggests.
It’s also important to “create a wind down routine approximately thirty to sixty minutes long before bed each night. Be mindful of your use of substances, like caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, particularly considering how much you consume and how close to bedtime,” Dr. McGowan continues.
Finally, consider how daytime activities affect your zzz’s. “Get exercise during the day but don’t engage in strenuous exercise within three to four hours of bedtime. Also, practice mindfulness and other relaxation strategies both during the day and close to bedtime,” Dr. McGowan says.
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Written by Jessica Lopez. Jessica Lopez is a writer and new mother based in Southern California. She has written for Cup of Jo, BRIDES, Byrdie, THE/THIRTY, and more, and she currently enjoys (over)thinking and writing about parenthood. You can connect with her on Instagram, if you’d like.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and we recommend that you always consult with your healthcare provider. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Perelel.