For new parents, “sleep deprived” doesn’t describe the full picture.
Parents absolutely have a sleep deficit. They’re also experiencing sleep fragmentation, being awoken as often as every twenty minutes and getting, on average, between one and three hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. They experience both sleep deprivation and sleep fragmentation over months, making their sleep deficit a chronic problem.
But with this three-factor sleep deprivation comes another problem: a presumption that sleep deprivation is a contest in which only parents can win. Memes attacking non-parents who dare to utter “I’m tired” suggest that perhaps parents are unfairly staking claim on sleep deprivation.
These five groups of people are reminders that parents aren’t the only sleep-deprived ones out there.
As a pregnant woman or partner of pregnant woman, you were likely sleep deprived. But the people who delivered and cared for your newborn? Many of them were getting less sleep than you.
All U.S. medical residents have been held to duty hour restrictions since 2003, when the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) restricted weekly work hours from 168 to 80. Prior to 2003, there was no national requirement for work hour restrictions, meaning that many residents were living at their hospitals.
In 2010, in an effort to reduce fatigue-related errors, the ACGME restricted first-year residents to 16 hour shifts. But that change will be reversed in the forthcoming 2017 guidelines, which extend first-year residents’ shifts up to 24 hours.
Parents who’ve taken their children even one time zone over understand how travel can wreak havoc on sleep rhythms. For airline pilots making long-haul trips, sleep deprivation is a serious danger. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2012 Sleep in America Poll found that one in five pilots committed a serious error at work because of sleep deprivation.
There are numerous safeguards in place to ensure that one sleepy pilot doesn’t crash a plane. But there are fewer safeguards to ensure that the pilot doesn’t crash his car on the way home from work.
One closed-track driving study found that drivers coming off the night shift were more likely to crash than drivers who’d recently slept. The Sleep in America Poll found that on average, pilots commute 45 minutes to work. Combine that commute with unpredictable and varied work hours, not to mention multiple time zone crossings, and pilots are in a unique position to doze off in dangerous spaces.
New parents can relate to the advice given to combat pilot fatigue: in-flight naps. Because airline pilots are never alone in the cockpit, one novel suggestion has been to encourage thoughtfully-timed napping on the job.
Active duty service members report both short sleep duration and sleep disorders. Given the extreme circumstances in which members of the military are often living, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they report an average of 5.74 hours of sleep per night.
But the sleep issues that emerge while on active duty follow people out of service. Estimates put the number of veterans suffering from PTSD at 15 to 20 percent. Those veterans are therefore likely to suffer from insomnia, nightmares, and sleep-related breathing and movement disorders.
PTSD is only one root cause of disordered sleep. Veterans also experience anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and a host of other conditions that can negatively impact sleep.
Caring for an aging spouse or parent is like caring for an infant, except that people don’t bring you presents and food and offers to watch the baby while you shower. And that infant can get out of bed, turn on the stove, walk out the front door, take medication, forget, and take it again.
Many elderly people sleep like infants, which means their caregivers do too. As a group, the elderly are more likely to wake to go to the bathroom. Because those midnight trips to the bathroom are associated with falls, caregivers of the elderly might be roused by the sound of the toilet.
Additionally, if the care recipient has dementia, he or she may experience sundowning, which is marked by confused, erratic, sometimes violent behavior in the early evening to late night hours. This means the caregiver has to be extra vigilant during those hours she should be sleeping.
Being a caregiver for an aging parent or spouse is also like early parenting in that it can be profoundly isolating. An emergency can strike at any time, leading to canceled plans. Also like early parents, caregivers find it more difficult to connect with their peers who are not bearing the burdens of caregiving.
A December 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the homeless get less sleep than the population at large, and that homeless women get even less sleep: they were two times more likely than homeless men to report getting fewer than four hours of sleep per night.
It’s hard to sleep when sleeping is often a crime. And when you add in all of the additional problems of sleep for the homeless – vulnerability to theft and violence, shelter availability, and susceptibility to the elements – a good night’s sleep is impossible. That’s even before considering how many businesses and even whole cities use design to ward off homeless sleepers. All of these factors combine to exacerbate the problems of homelessness even further, making it difficult for them to hold down jobs or treat illnesses.
A case for empathy
One recent study suggests that parents assuming their sleep deprivation outweighs all others’ sleep deprivation are doing so precisely because they are tired. Researchers found that participants who were deprived of an entire night’s sleep were less empathetic than those who slept a full night.
If parents know that sleep deprivation leads to less empathy, perhaps we can work against our tendency to dismiss others’ struggles. Instead of assuming that parents own sleep deprivation, we can look outward to consider how other people struggle with sleep.
Perhaps we can be more empathetic to people who work long days or work rotating shifts, or who change time zones for work. We can imagine what it’s like for professional success to be built around a culture of sleep deprivation. We can imagine people whose illnesses make precious sleep impossible to get. We can imagine what it’s like for sleep to be dangerous.
This kind of imagining may not help us get more sleep, but it can help us be more thoughtful, reflective people, and therefore, better parents.