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How Working Parents Can Prioritize Sleep

by Amie M. Gordon and Christopher M. Barnes

Quick Takes

  • Set a consistent sleep routine—and stick to it
  • Limit blue light and keep screens out of your bedroom
  • Avoid talking about serious matters before bed
  • Make the most of your family’s sleeping schedules
  • Shape your work schedule around your family
  • Don’t stress about a bad night’s sleep

When you’re juggling a job, kids, and all the details of everyday life, sleep feels like a luxury you can afford later, when your kids are grown. Instead of sleeping, parents use those precious few moments they have at the end of the day to catch up on work or take some much-needed “me time.” But the problems that come with not getting enough sleep won’t simply step aside and wait until retirement. Sleep deprivation magnifies the challenges in an already difficult life. One area where sleep deprivation takes its toll is on our relationships, both at home and in the workplace.

Research from across the globe has linked general sleep tendencies with relationship quality, showing that people who sleep worse experience less satisfying relationships, particularly with romantic partners. People are more likely to fight with their partners after a poor night of sleep, and couples have more difficulty resolving conflicts if either partner slept worse the prior night. The effects go the other way as well—people tend to sleep worse after fighting with their romantic partners.1 This creates the possibility of a vicious cycle in which poor sleep begets conflict, and conflict begets poor sleep. Additionally, research suggests children who are exposed to more marital conflict tend to sleep worse, which may have further negative effects on the parents’ sleep. In contrast, children whose parents have higher-quality relationships tend to sleep better.2

Sleep also plays a role in how we relate to our children. One study found that mothers who had more disrupted sleep were less sensitive to their 18-week-old infants than those who had more continuous sleep. Good sleep may also be a protective factor; both parents and children who sleep better are more resilient in the face of stressors.3 Overall, getting the sleep we need helps us have better relationships with our children.

Although our sleep tends to happen at home, we bring the consequences of poor sleep into the workplace, too. Leaders who report sleeping worse tend to engage in more abusive behaviors toward their employees (such as yelling at them in front of their colleagues) and have damaged relationships with those employees. Sleep-deprived leaders are also less charismatic and generally less effective in their leadership roles. Research indicates that overall, businesses benefit when employees are well rested.4

Deprioritizing sleep is one way to deal with the heavy demands on a working parent’s limited time, but the consequences are clear: Both at home and in the workplace, relationships are worse when people don’t prioritize their sleep.

So, what is a time-famished working parent to do?

Set Habits for Better Sleep

Since physicists have yet to unlock the secrets to freezing time, working parents must turn to more feasible means to get a good night of sleep. Here are a few evidence-based tips to help working parents take care of themselves and create good sleeping practices when it seems like there is no time to do so. Getting good sleep won’t give you more time, but it will help you make better use of the time you have.

Make sleep a priority

Recognize that your days will feel more productive if you get enough sleep, which can give you a sense of having more time. There’s always the desire to fit in “one last thing” or put off going to sleep, but a good night of sleep will give you much-needed resources to deal with the demands of daily life. Figure out how much sleep you need to feel well rested (the recommendation in the United States is seven to nine hours for adults). Decide what time you need to wake up in the morning, then count backward. Set a bedtime alarm, giving yourself an extra 30 minutes to an hour to unwind and get ready for bed each night. Creating a relaxing bedtime routine for the whole family (dim lights, relaxing music, stories in bed) might be one way to get everyone to wind down together.

Set a consistent sleep routine for yourself and your children

One of the best ways to sleep well is to have a consistent sleep routine. This tells your body when to wake up and when to go to sleep so that it releases melatonin at the right time, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. A consistent routine won’t just get you more sleep, it will get you more high-quality sleep. Keep these habits both on the days you’re working and on the days you’re not. Although it is enticing, using the weekends to do a major “catch-up” on sleep is actually counterproductive. Sleeping in late will feel good that day, but it throws off your body clock and fails to address the larger issue of having a consistent schedule that allows enough time for sleep on a daily basis. Children, even teens, get more sleep when parents help structure the child’s sleep schedule.

Limit exposure to blue light at night

Smartphones, computers, and tablets emit blue light, which tells your body it’s daytime and can disrupt your sleep. To prevent this, use blue-light filters (built into most tablets and smartphones) or wear blue-light blocking glasses when using a screen in the hours leading up to your bedtime routine. On the other hand, exposure to bright blue light in the morning is a great way to start your day. Exposure to bright light when you first wake up helps set your circadian rhythm and lets your body know it’s time to be alert.

Keep screens out of your bedroom

In an ever-connected world, working parents may want to check their email one last time or scroll through Twitter for a few minutes after they’re in bed. But a big part of good sleep hygiene is giving your body a chance to unwind before you fall asleep. We also tend to lack self-regulation when we get more tired, so while you might only intend to go online for a few minutes, those handful of minutes can quickly turn into an hour or more. Leave your screens outside the room or put them in airplane mode before you get in bed.

Quit while you’re ahead

We’ve all wanted to stay up just a little longer to finish the task we’re working on. But if you’re trying to work when it’s time to go to bed, you’re going to be more in-efficient and make more mistakes. Instead, stick to your bedtime and return to your task the next day when you’ll be refreshed, thinking clearly, and can get it done in half the time.

Don’t stress about those inevitable nights of poor sleep

While a consistent sleep routine is great, everyone experiences poor sleep at some point. Worrying about your sleep can become a problem of its own. Instead, recognize that your body is resilient and can handle short-term sleep problems, and find ways to destress before bed to help you relax and sleep well.

Work with Those Around You

Beyond ways to make your sleep more consistent and habitual, consider these relationship-based strategies to prevent the inevitable conflicts that can arise from lack of sleep.

Don’t talk about serious matters right before bed

Although you’ve likely been told to never go to bed angry, a good night of sleep might also help you deal more constructively with conflict. If you can, save serious matters for a time when you’re both awake and have the energy to talk. This may seem impossible, but like sleep, building in time to talk when you aren’t tired can help the rest of your relationship run more smoothly.

Everybody’s Tired

The people in your life are likely just as tired as you are, so if your partner forgets to call you on their way home from work, assume it’s because they had a difficult workday and not because they don’t value your time. If your child is only giving one-word answers at dinner, remind yourself they may just be exhausted from an active day at school and not uninterested in what you have to say. And when your colleague forgets to confirm a meeting, check to see how they’re doing personally before writing them off as unreliable.

Don’t jump to conclusions or react unhappily. Give your family and colleagues the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they could just use a good night’s sleep.

Make the most of different sleeping schedules

Having a different bedtime from your partner might seem problematic when your schedules don’t overlap—whether those differences are due to personal preferences or work schedules. However, you may be able to leverage this difference by putting the person who wakes up early in charge of the morning routine and the night owl in charge of bedtime.

Look into the possibility of flextime

If your job allows it, being able to work from home or shape your work schedule around your family might help you feel less stressed and sleep better. For example, if you’re an early riser, you might benefit from working at home in the morning before your family gets up and adjusting your hours accordingly. Consider being flexible with your family time as well. For instance, some families with full schedules might find that breakfast together works better than the traditional family dinner, so you can devote those evening hours to attending your children’s extracurricular activities, cementing a toddler’s bedtime routine, or unwinding after a long day, without the added stress of meal prep.

When you feel as if you have no time to sleep is exactly when you need sleep the most. Finding a way to prioritize consistent, high-quality sleep can help you better navigate the demands of your everyday life, from better interactions with your family to better sleep for your children to better relationships at work.

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, March 31, 2020 (product #H05HR7).

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