If you read my newsletter last week, you may remember that my intention for 2022 is to get enough sleep every day. Ten days into the new year, I am already sleep-deprived: I’m writing this after having slept only five hours, as I stayed up well into the night for a task I thought would take far less time than it did.

My relationship to sleep can be marked by two precise moments.

The first one goes back to my high school times back in Naples, around 1996. One of my classmates told me one day that she didn’t sleep much and worked into the night to get everything done. She was an overachiever and one of the school’s best students, and I wanted in on her secret. After all, I was an overachiever too: besides doing well in school, I studied English and German on the side, took swimming classes, co-edited the school’s newspaper and was the elected student leader — participating in regular meetings with representatives of teachers and parents, as well as the school principal — and doing political activity with other students in Naples. I also liked spending hours on the phone with my friends and my boyfriend and reading. There was never enough time in the day.

When Marianne, my classmate, told me that she slept four or five hours every night to get stuff done, I must have been 16. Her reasoning seemed perfect. I tended to be quite an anxious teenager and often had trouble falling asleep. But when I followed her lead and started stretching my day well into the night, I no longer had these troubles. I would be so exhausted by the time my head hit the pillow that I would almost faint into a deep sleep, so different from how I used to experience sleep.

Don’t get me wrong, I like sleeping. But I never realised how much I liked it until I became a mother. Which brings me to the second moment that defines my relationship to sleep.

When Lorenzo was born nearly three years ago, I had already spent some uncomfortable, sleepless nights, having trouble settling with my huge belly and moving around a lot. I had attended a birthing class where we were taught about the dangers of co-sleeping, and I was horrified. In the hospital, after delivery, I was too excited and running high on adrenaline to sleep. I wanted to hold Lorenzo on me and inspect him, but we were told to let him sleep and take advantage of that time to sleep with him. Friends who had had children kept repeating the same mantra: sleep when he sleeps.

We made it home. I had to work. How could I sleep when he slept? That was the easiest time to type away or teach English. After a few weeks of exhaustion, I started dreading the nights. As soon as I lay down, around 10 or 11pm, Lorenzo would wake up and want to feed. I was so tired I couldn’t even sit up in bed while he fed. That’s when I experimented with putting Lorenzo next to me in bed, well guarded by a big cushion, while feeding him. Things changed. I started sleeping a little more, and Lorenzo did too with my smell comforting him. Yet, now that my sleep was so limited and interrupted, there was nothing I wished to do more. I daydreamt of going to a beach and falling asleep in the shade while reading a book.

Parents and teens seem to be equally sleep-deprived, according to many studies. But while I now have the chance to read up about all the benefits of sleep, especially how it puts you in a better mood, I wish someone had told me growing up just how great sleep is, even if you just want to perform better academically.

Sleep is so important and tricky that it is one of the things parents talk about most. Some studies show that parents’ stress can be predicted based on their sleep quality, while a child’s sleep quality also plays an important role on the parent’s wellbeing. I am sure we all have a lot of experience in this sense. Whenever Lorenzo has a cold, he sleeps worse, and I sleep worse and feel worse. It becomes a cycle, where I often catch his bugs too because my system is weak.

So, back to my intention to sleep more in 2022, I just read this great essay by Katie Hawkins-Gaar in My Sweet Dumb Brain about setting gentle goals rather than hard resolutions. It inspired me to beat myself up less about my lack of sleep last night and instead try to be more gentle to myself tonight. Especially in the light of understanding that women tend to sleep less overall when they care for children.

Setting gentle goals is important because when we think about making resolutions, writes Hawkins-Gaar, we idealise the circumstances in which we will be living. “We picture ourselves meditating daily, in a perfectly peaceful and quiet home. We promise to work out three times a week, without fail, assuming that no injury or illness will get in our way. We vow to cut out caffeine, believing that a good night’s sleep will always be available to us.”

So, yes, I plan to sleep more this year, but I also have a lot of new projects on my plate and I need to get back into the work rhythm after taking a couple of weeks off. In ideal circumstances, I’d be able to do all of this while also achieving my goal of eight hours sleep a night, but realistically, I can’t just flick a switch and become a fantastic sleeper overnight. Keeping my goals gentle allows me space to achieve them when I can, and not beat myself about it when I fail. And that helps me sleep at night. 😬

I’d love to hear from you, about your goals for 2022, and your sleep too. What’s your relationship with sleep? Has it changed over the years? And if you have children in your life, how has that affected your sleep? I’ll be coming back to this topic over the year, so please share your doubts and questions too. Hit reply to respond. Or become a paying member to leave a message below this story.

What I’ve been reading

Human milk is amazing, I’ve written plenty about it: from added insulation on cold days to extra antibodies during illness, breast milk is customised for every baby. But breastfeeding is not for everyone, and many families look for human milk elsewhere. So what happens when corporations try to turn human milk into a for-profit business? 

This piece by Sarah Steele from the University of Cambridge provides great food for thought and is well worth a read to consider the ethical implications of turning human milk into a profitable business.

What I’ve been listening to

Talking about sleep, here is another interesting podcast I listened to. This episode of Origin Stories explores the work of Horacio de la Iglesia, an Argentine neurobiologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, who’s trying to understand how patterns of human sleep evolved. 

The latest research he led, which involved remote indigenous communities in the north of Argentina as well as students in Seattle, shows that sleep is connected to the cycles of the moon, and that we sleep less in the nights preceding a full moon, when there is more light in the first half of the night. His research found that artificial light did not alter this pattern, and suggests that there are forces of nature that are beyond our control.

What I’ve been watching

I finally watched Luca, the Disney & Pixar animation that came out last year. Set in Italy, the film tells the story of a young sea monster that ventures out on land where he meets Alberto, who will become his best friend

The story has a great soundtrack of Italian 1960s songs and made me nostalgic of lazy summer days in Italy when I was a child. Director Enrico Casarosa is originally from the Italian city of Genoa and his childhood memories of fishermen villages were already visible in the 2011 short La Luna, which I really enjoyed too.

What’s been inspiring me

Sohail Ahmadi was only two months old when he was separated from his parents at the airport in Kabul, where his family was fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban take-over.

Following a story published by Reuters in November, which included Ahmadi’s picture, the baby was located in Kabul, where a taxi driver had been raising him since finding him abandoned at the airport.

After a long negotiation, Hamid Safi, the taxi driver, handed Ahmadi to his grandfather, with the hope that the baby would be reunited with his parents, who are now in Michigan, in the United States. This story helps me believe in the practical role that journalism can have, but also brings up many questions about the fate of over 1,000 children who were separated from their parents during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

With love and care,
Irene

📣 Imogen Champagne, a member of this community and a friend, edited and improved this week’s newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Pambula, Australia. Thanks, Imogen! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)

Photo credits and alt-text: sleeping fox, photo by Qijin Xu on Unsplash.

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3 thoughts on “Let’s talk about sleep, baby

  1. Oh my, I still remember those early days with our daughter. The only thing I wanted to do was just sleep. That’s when I realized how much my life had changed and just how much sleep affected me. After the first month we took a picture and I nearly didn’t recognize myself. Now I’ve always been a sleeper: my idea of a perfect weekend involved a book, a cup of tea and a good long nap long before I ever became a mum. Nowadays we turn in to bed at 9PM without any issue since we never know when she will wake up and for me sleeping enough is an absolute must. Honestly, I don’t know how others do it: maybe there are different kinds of people, but I simply don’t function when running low on sleep. In the end of course it’s a tradeoff: at work for example I put in 200%, but I make sure to log off on time to spend time with the family, eat, and get to sleep on time even if it doesn’t leave much for a social life during the week.
    As to new years goals, I try to move away from exact goals as I often don’t meet them and then I get frustrated, and abandon the effort most times. Instead, this year I’m simply focused on doing the right thing for myself and my family, live healthy and be happy, however much that may change from week to week and how it would meet or go against any goal I might set.

  2. When I was small, I would be sent to bed at some time (no idea anymore what time it was, but it was always dark) and I would lie there for hours waiting for my brain to stop thinking about things (like what letter could come after K in the alphabet). Some nights my mom would come and teach me how to meditate (relax). she would start with saying “feel your toes, your toes are getting heavy, so heavy you cant move them anymore, feel your ankles, they are getting….” by the time she would get to hands/fingers the talking generally stopped, and a light snoring would start. and what felt like half an hour later I would climb out of bed and get my dad to pick up my sleeping mom… What I remember of the days after the nights that I couldn’t sleep, I was usually groggy, figity and no fun for my self or anyone else probably. my sleep habits got a little bit better during my teens but generally I would only start doing homework after dinner as my way of making myself tired enough so that I could sleep by 10pm. Friday nights my friends would all go out, but I generally didn’t make it till that late as I was usually to tired… When I started college I would go to parties, but by the time most others would arrive I would be thinking about heading home as I was almost falling asleep. By that time i had figured out that I needed a good 9 hours sleep a night to not be grumpy during the day. But then I worked on designing, building and racing a racecar with a student team in one year. We were so ambitious that we had to work 16+ hours a day just to keep up with our own planning. the last 3 months of the year I started skipping roughly one night a week to be able to try and cut my deficit on the planning. at the end of the project I was so sleep deprived that any moment I relaxed I would get a spasm throughout my body. According to my GP this was due to the sleep deprivation and this was close to being a full epileptic attack. I had to sleep and get my body back into shape. Since then I have tried to sleep a lot more, but I notice that when ever I am far behind on work I end up having days/nights that I sacrifice sleep for progress. I still get the spasms occationally and that for me is a warning that I have to go sleep a lot more (and go to bed that instant!). often though the progress made with one of the long night sessions is very short term as the next day I’m so tired I can’t do much (so I usually only do it if I have to deliver for someone else). I had sleep pretty much under control until my son was born a little over a year ago. Now I sleep whenever I can, but its just too little again. I am with him a good 3,5 days a week. my partner does the other 3,5 days (and all the nights). at the same time I’m starting a new project/company and so I would actually like to work on it 7 days a week. as a result I found my self cramming in meetings at 6 am before he wakes up with partners in Asia, and late night evening meetings with the US, and even meetings during his afternoon naps with Europe (we are in NL). I’ve stopped that now. Lifes’ no fun when I’m not getting enough sleep not for me but also not for my son (or partner).

  3. On breast milk business. I was thinking about the the pump for profit milk industry a while back. I was told that it was illegal and was rather glad to hear that, but I found it an interesting sadistic thought experiment that I hope will never happen. How can we could stop with formula from a cow and change it to formula from a human. could the Vegan community get behind it? and could they be the first target group to market it to. with cows milk they always say “not your mom, not your milk”. and in the natural parenting world it is not uncommon to “share” milk so maybe it might be for them… But then would we start human milk factories in say the poorest regions of Africa (because lets face it, most businesses exploit the advantages of the low wage countries so why not the breast milk industry?). with wages rising in China and asia, Africa is probably a good option to exploit, and with corruption widespread and regulations non-existent or easy to circumvent, its easy to think that this could be a place you could set up a business. Women could come and “work” 12 hours a day (maybe more). have their breasts connected to suction machines that would automatically suck every so often, volumes measured constantly and optimised with AI algorithms with the aim of maximising the production quantities. Perhaps a conveyer belt going along the ladies with nutritionally optimised food stufs that the women would have to eat. again that could be optimised. would their children be allowed to drink moms milk? or would we give them some replacement? perhaps from a cow?… would the children even be allowed to be with the moms? or would that distract them from doing their work – permanently eating and drinking, whilst sitting on a toilet, connected to this breast pumping machine. maybe in a same room as other women (good for social contacts). The women have 2/3 or 4 year contracts in which they are paid for their time but are required to produce minimum production quantities.

    If pump-for-profit is allowed. For me it is clear, someone, at some point is going to send the industry down this terrible road. So if its not banned already, we need it tackled…

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