Please be patient with us. We’re sleep training.
School is about to start, and we’re sleep training in my household. No, not for a cute but wakeful infant. For a 6-year-old first grader and me, his middle-aged momma.
With the aid of melatonin, setting alarms that feel unnaturally early even when we don’t need to, and coffee (for me, obviously), my son and I are preparing for a horrifyingly early school bell starting this fall. For us, the entire 2020-2021 academic year was done remotely. We were precariously juggling a lot of scheduling between his kindergarten requirements and those of my own demanding job in higher education. So, when summer break came around, I was DONE with following strict schedules. ABSOLUTELY DONE.
I decided to let us follow our own natural, internal clock, going to bed and waking up at times that felt right to us. We’ve never felt more rested or relaxed. Or in tune with our bodies. The big problem is we’re night owls through and through. There’s absolutely no early-bird-worm-getting for the two of us.
We’re two die-hard night owls, but it’s not our fault!
Listen, we can’t help it. It’s literally in our genes. Did you know that your body’s natural clock, the circadian rhythm, is genetic? Just like you inherit your eye color or height, you also inherit your circadian rhythm, at least in part. There are several genes known to control your internal clock, and there are probably more to be discovered. Worse still for this mom-son duo, studies have shown that the main controller of your circadian rhythm, which is located in the brain, is heavily influenced by your biological mother during pregnancy.
They say we have some sort of “disorder.” I say our ancestors kept us all safe at night.
If you’ve inherited the night owl variants like my son and me, you probably identify with those of us with “delayed sleep phase disorder.” Personally, I object to the notion of it being a “disorder” versus just a natural variation. Evolutionarily, I’m sure we late-nighters played a role in keeping our hunter-gatherer clans safe from saber-tooth tiger attacks while everyone else was sound asleep. Truthfully, it isn’t considered a disorder until it becomes a problem trying to keep up with society’s early schedules. If we didn’t have pressure from society, it would just be considered another fun trait, like curly hair or dimples.
I’m definitely one to burn the midnight oil. I naturally fall asleep around 2:00 a.m. and wake up around 10:00 a.m. if left to my own devices. My most productive hours are from 8:00 p.m. to midnight. If I were simply allowed to follow that schedule, I wouldn’t need sleep aids to help me wind down at night or coffee to get me going in the morning.
Like mother, like child.
My son has shown he’s not much for “normal” sleep either. He was one of the first toddlers I knew to drop naps and still have the energy to hang out with momma late at night if I let him. I wanted to see how late he was able to stay awake this summer, so for a couple of nights when we had no plans the next day, I let him stay up as late as he wanted. You know, for science. Do you know any other 6 year old who can hang ‘til 3:30 a.m.? Or stay up all night, conk out at 6:00 a.m., and then sleep in to the late afternoon? This kid is going to CRUSH IT when it comes to college all-nighters.
You normal and early sleep phase folks, please pay attention to this part: we are not lazy, as some like to characterize late-nighters like us. We’re just energized and at our best in the evening when others are starting to wind down. And we’re a mental jumble in the morning until the hands on our circadian clocks get to about 11:00 a.m. Then we’re totally ready to rumble.
Doing what we’ve gotta do.
Sadly, we need to conform to the schedules of “normal” people: in bed by 10:00 p.m. and up by 7:00 a.m. to get ready for school and work. Truly, it’s like telling the average person that they need to be in bed by 6:00 p.m, wake up at 3:00 a.m., and just suck it up for the rest of their lives. People do it for shift work, for sure, but it’s not easy. And it has several health consequences. Forcing yourself out of phase increases your chances of developing cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, and cancer, and has a negative impact on learning and memory.
If you were forced to shift your own cycle up by three or four hours, it would be pretty difficult, right? You’d probably rely on sleep aids and wake aids to make it work, and you’d never quite feel in sync. When you earn that lovely week or two of vacation, you’d drop that weird-to-you schedule and allow yourself a good sleep-in. But you’d also know the return to the early schedule will require double the sleep aids and wake aids for a bit until you get back on track because this is not what your body naturally wants to do.
I’ve planned for over a month of sleep training for us to go against our very instincts. That’s how difficult I anticipate this shift to be. And that’s what my son and I are working on right now. We’re preparing for a schedule about three hours earlier than our natural rhythms, and lo no está bueno. We simply have no other choice.
If you see me at school drop off, offer me a coffee!
Please be kind to your “delayed sleep phase disordered” friends, students, and coworkers at the beginning of fall because we are not okay. Give us a moment. And maybe a cup of coffee. And for you parents currently sleep training your precious infants, this 40-something-year-old mother and her first grader are right in it with you. Good luck!