Despite how persuasive all this science is, somehow it still seems like a huge leap of faith to consider giving back an hour of our children’s lives to slumber. Statistical correlations are fine evidence for scientists, but as parents, we want more—we want control.
Dr. Judith Owens runs a sleep clinic in Providence, Rhode Island, affiliated with Brown. Recently, a father came in with his 15-year-old daughter, who was complaining of severe headaches. Interviewing the patient, Owens quickly learned that her daily routine was a brutal grind; after violin lessons, bassoon lessons, dance classes, and the homework from honors classes, she was able to get only five hours of sleep a night before waking every morning at 4:30 to hustle off to the gym. The father wanted to know if a lack of sleep could be causing her headaches. Owens told him that was probably the case. She recommended his daughter cut back on her schedule.
The word probably made this father hesitant. He would let her cut back, but only if Owens could prove, in advance, that sacrificing an activity would stop the headaches. Sure, he knew that sleep was important, but was it more important than honors French? Was it more important than getting into a great college?
Owens tried her standard argument. “Would you let your daughter ride in a car without a seat belt? You have to think of sleep the same way.” But in the father’s mind, he saw the transaction the other way around: Cutting back was putting his daughter at risk. What if the headaches didn’t stop and she gave up one of her great passions, like dance, for no reason?
Long before children become overscheduled high schoolers gunning for college, parents start making trade-offs between their kids’ sleep and their other needs. This is especially true in the last hour of a child’s day, a time zone let’s call “the Slush Hour.” The Slush Hour is both a rush to sleep and a slush fund of potential time, sort of a petty-cash drawer from which we withdraw ten-minute increments. During the Slush Hour, children should be in bed, but there are so many competing priorities. As a result, sleep is treated much like the national debt—What’s another half-hour on the bill? We’re surviving; kids can, too.
Sleep is a biological imperative for every species on Earth. But humans alone try to resist its pull. Instead, we see sleep not as a physical need but a statement of character. It’s considered a sign of weakness to admit fatigue, and it’s a sign of strength to refuse to succumb to slumber. Sleep is for wusses.
But perhaps we are blind to the toll it is taking on us. The University of Pennsylvania’s David Dinges did an experiment shortening adults’ sleep to six hours a night. After two weeks, they reported they were doing okay. Yet on a battery of tests, they proved to be just as impaired as someone who has stayed awake for 24 hours straight.
Dinges did the experiment to demonstrate how sleep loss is cumulative, and how easily our judgment can be fooled by sleep deprivation. Nevertheless, it’s easy to read his research and think, “I would suffer, but not that bad. I would be the exception.” We’ve coped on too-little sleep for years and managed to get by. But when it comes to a child’s developing brain, is just getting by enough?