Sleepless and Cranky

By Springen, Karen | Newsweek, May 17, 1999 | Go to article overview

Sleepless and Cranky


Springen, Karen, Newsweek


Until just a month ago, Sarah Karmin, 21/2, was peaceably closing her eyes at 8:30 p.m. and awakening 12 hours later. A model sleeper. Then suddenly, she was refusing to go to bed before midnight, and staying up between 2:30 and 7 a.m. "It's just been awful," says her mom, Ellen Karmin, of Highland Park, Ill. "She's waking up scared, crying and screaming. I can't handle it anymore." In one futile attempt to get Sarah to sleep, her dad even drove her to Wisconsin and back at 4 a.m. The exhausted Karmins recently slept until noon and completely missed a 10 a.m. birthday party. They still don't know where Sarah's sleep problem comes from: the anticipated arrival of a sibling next month, the elimination of her nightly bottle--or something else entirely.

Like millions of Americans, the Karmins have learned that a child's sleep disturbances can turn into a nightmare for the whole family. Exhausted parents--who have a harder time falling back to sleep than their kids do--can suffer from drowsiness, inability to concentrate, impaired memory, loss of creativity and mood swings. Some even hallucinate. But sleep deprivation is the American way of life, doctors say. In the National Sleep Foundation's 1999 Sleep in America poll, 40 percent of adults said they're so sleepy that it interferes with their daily activities; 27 percent said they had dozed off while driving in the past year. Experts suspect the figures are worse for parents, whose fatigue causes them to lose their sense of humor and to argue with each other. "Some of them seem to be on the verge of divorce," says child-psychologist Jodi Mindell, author of "Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep." "They're not functioning as parents, in their marriage or at their job. You find decreases in parental depression and increases in marital satisfaction once the baby is sleeping."

Parents love their little darlings, but they want them to slumber--as much as the young Rip Van Winkles they've heard about down the street. It may not seem like it to moms and dads, but children sleep more than 90 hours a week as newborns and 74 hours a week from ages 5 to 11. The problem is, infants wake up frequently for diaper changes and milk, and young children for comfort after nightmares. Their parents end up getting "fragmented" sleep. They're interrupted in the middle of the usual, restorative 90-minute cycles of rest. "The only people who suffer from sleep problems are the parents," says pediatrician Barton Schmitt, author of "Your Child's Health" and director of the Sleep Disorder Clinic at Children's Hospital in Denver. "The kids don't have carpools and don't have to see clients or patients. The kids can do all their catch-up sleeping during waking hours if you let them."

Children often wake their parents at the worst time in their sleep cycles. Kids' nightmares usually occur during the second half of the night, when dreaming is most intense--and when parents have a harder time falling back to sleep. …

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