Sleep wars

Women need more sleep than men, yet most of us get less than our partners. If the next battle of the sexes is the quest for rest, here’s how you can put sleep back on your priority list and end up on top


Tiffany Palmer figures she’ll catch up on sleep when she’s 80. Or at least once her two young children, ages four and five, grow up and she’s able to retire from her busy full-time job as director of compliance for a pension fund. In the meantime, Palmer, 39, averages five to six hours of sleep a night — well under the 7.5 to eight hours recommended by many experts for a woman her age, and a couple of hours less than anyone else in her family. She’d like more sleep, she says, but there’s too much to do and someone has to do it. Most nights, after her children and husband go to bed, Palmer stays up into the wee hours doing what she calls “kid and house work.” She’ll fill out school forms, reorganize closets, tidy and prepare meals for the following day.

“If I go to bed and the house isn’t organized the way I need it to be, I can’t sleep anyway,” Palmer explains. As for her husband? “He has no idea what I do at night. By the time I get to bed he’s been there for an hour already. And he’s not even a jerk — he’s a good husband. He just doesn’t care about the same things as I do.”

Palmer isn’t alone. Research reports that single working women and mothers of young children tend to be the drowsiest in an already sleep-starved culture. And while the willingness of working moms like Palmer to suck it up and stumble through life more sleep-deprived than their partners might seem admirable, it is arguably doing women a disservice, and possibly a dangerous one.

A 2009 study by the University of Warwick and University College London reveals that women who sleep for fewer than eight hours a night have a much higher risk of developing heart disease than their male counterparts. Perhaps even more alarming (for some of us anyway) is the news that refusing shut-eye is akin to saying “Hell, yes” to the dessert cart. In other words, not sleeping can make us fat. One U.S. study tracked women over the course of 16 years and found that women who slept for five hours a night were 32 percent more likely to experience major weight gain (more than 33 pounds) and 15 percent more likely to become obese, compared with women who got seven hours of sleep.

Over time, sleep deprivation affects us on every level. It impacts our mood and impairs our ability to concentrate and handle stress. It causes depression, anxiety and irritability. Not getting enough also reduces our ability to control our emotions and slows down our reflexes on the road. It can even make us forget the word for those fuzzy cotton things you put on your feet before shoes. Playing catch-up isn’t as easy as you may think. “Sleep debt builds,” says Nicky Cohen, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and sleep expert. “It gets worse over time. If you’re very sleep-deprived for weeks on end, one good night’s sleep is not going to do it.”

As sleeplessness wreaks havoc on our health, it’s also becoming the next feminist issue, with a growing chorus of high-profile women joining forces to say it’s got to stop.

Earlier this year, Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, and Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour magazine, banded together to launch Sleep Challenge 2010 for the sake of the sisterhood. For one month, both women kept a regular sleep blog and attempted to log the minimum suggested 7.5 hours at night. Huffington and Leive believe that women are more under-slept because many of us overcompensate at work and home. To them, the issue of sleeplessness is political. “We’ve already broken glass ceilings in Congress, space travel, sports, business and the media,” they blogged in the intro to the Sleep Challenge.“ Just imagine what we can do when we’re fully awake.”

It’s no secret many professional women drive themselves hard in an attempt to stay on top of their overpacked schedules, but what’s less well known is that this drive may be self-defeating. A female’s body needs more sleep than a male’s, says Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist and the author of Beauty Sleep, which hammers home the healing power of slumber. He says forgoing rest in an effort to achieve more is a false victory and your performance will suffer. “If you’re behind a desk it reduces your creativity, and if you’re a truck driver, it reduces your reaction time. And of course you’re more likely to be cranky,” says Breus of the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation.

In the end, however, the Sleep Challenge was not always a resounding success. Leive, a mother of two, ended up laying awake at night “ thinking of logos and Lego,” while Huffington, a self-confessed workaholic, clocked less than four hours of sleep after hosting a dinner party until the wee hours. Sure, these women wrote engagingly about the challenges of sleep, including jet lag, nightgowns and the benefits of melatonin toothpaste and lavender pillow spray, but they struggled to meet the nightly rest minimum despite a professional mandate to do so. Ironically, it seems they were too busy blogging about the importance of sleep to engage in the act itself.

But as a launch point for discussion, the Sleep Challenge scored a palpable hit. Lisa Belkin of the New York Times weighed in on her blog, arguing that the reason women sleep less is not that we’re trying to break into the boys’ club, but that we’re overburdened. And writer Naomi Wolf hit back in the Times of London, insisting that middle-class women are to blame for their own sleeplessness. And some of us are culpable. After a long day at the office, mothers like Palmer face a choice: a full night’s sleep or an organized household. For Joanna Baker, a working mother in Chelsea, Que., it’s no contest. “It gets complicated when you start saying, ‘Well, whose work is more important? Why am I the one up at 11:30 making lunches?’ It’s frustrating, for sure. But Daddy isn’t the first choice as a go-to person. So men just give up trying. As a result, they get more sleep.”

It’s these everyday moral dilemmas — prepare healthy snacks for the kids and tidy the house or get two more hours of sleep? — that are causing many women to view one of the body’s most basic human needs as a luxury. The eight restful hours that were once taken for granted have been relegated to the realm of fantasy for many. “It’s not about catching up anymore,” says Baker, who has days when she can barely formulate sentences in meetings. “It’s not an option.” In this sense, sleep is seen as a selfish indulgence, like a relaxation massage or reading fiction — something to be thought of only when every other priority is taken care of.

“Sometimes, at the very end of the night, I’ll stay up and give myself a facial or do my nails,” admits Palmer. “But only if everything else is done.” She also admits she never exercises and jokes, “Basically I look terrible all the time.”

Like many sleep-deprived women, Mary Jane Ireland, a veterinarian and new mother in Kemptville, Ont., knows her routine is a problem. But with a taxing job and an active two-year-old son, she can’t see any way around it. “It’s self-inflicted to some degree, because all my friends who are working women are all exhausted and we’re all doing the lion’s share of the housework. It’s easy to see how anyone could feel resentful, but you get used to it.”

The other option, Ireland says, is “being angry all the time,” and that “wouldn’t be a nice way to live.” What about a third option of asking our partners (assuming we have one) to pick up the slack and give up some of their own sleep?

“We tried that a couple of times,” says Ireland. “My husband would get up, but when he’d come back to bed, I’d be wide awake anyway, wondering what was wrong.” And Baker is blunt on the subject. “It’s just easier to do it yourself.”

While women view their own lack of sleep through differently jaundiced (though similarly bloodshot) eyes, one thing is certain: we’re suffering for it. And until we find a way to bid sleep inequality good night, we’re giving up our right to rest. Recognizing the issue is a good first step. But making it a priority, as Leive and Huffington tried to do, is how you’ll win the war.