Mother’s New Little Helper: Is sleep medication the answer to escaping a demanding mind?

Lots of things have been said to be able to help you sleep: warm milk and tea before bed, a bubbly bath, or even a glass of wine.  With our ever-demanding and relentless jobs and lives, it’s a wonder that any of us sleep at all!  Yesterday’s New York Times featured an article entitled Sleep Medication: Mother’s Newest Little Helper, sparking a conversation about why women tend to have trouble sleeping and what this means for their mental health.  The women interviewed for this article described the tape that keeps them awake at 3am: “I need to call that guy about fixing the car. I think I’ve run out my daughter’s favorite snack. Should I change the batteries in the smoke alarm?”.  Sound like a tape that might run in your mind?  I certainly own my own version.

Nearly one in three women in America admits to using some kind of sleep aid to help them sleep at least a few nights a week – the most common being Lunesta or melantonin, and some forms of anxiety medications and antidepressants are also used to help numb the mind.  Medications like Xanax can be addictive, causing some women to “lay off” them for a few days and risk a sleepless night.  Tylenol PM also runs the same risk of dependency, and as Chris Baldwin laments, “the mornings after I stop taking them for a bit, I get a hangover.”  How’s a woman to win?

Is this sleepless life new for women?  Certainly not.  Women outnumber men significantly as patients in sleep clinics, causing clinicians to ponder if they suffer from insomnia more than men do.  Women in today’s society constantly struggle with making daily decisions and often feel as if they are ‘barely afloat’.  Many women, both partnered and single, may feel pressure to be both the breadwinner in the family and also the primary caretaker of children.  New motherhood is commonly a cause of sleepless nights — nearly 84% of new mothers report insomnia when they have an infant — but why does insomnia extend past the infant stage?

Many parents are ‘trained’ to keep one ear open to see if their children need them in the night, even if the kids are sleeping soundly in their beds.  This habit of wakefulness can persist unless the parent consciously takes steps to cease the pattern and to get more sleep.  In a study performed by Emory Sleep Center in Atlanta, three out of four patients were women and 80 percent of the women reported ‘being just too stressed or worried to turn out the proverbial lights.”  The article cites a myth that is all too commonly believed: that children are the cause for a parent’s insomnia.  The truth is that it is mothers who keep themselves awake, as they struggle with defining when and how they can ‘turn off’ for the night.

In addition to the constant tape of “I should, I need to, I have to remember…” that keeps us awake at times when our bodies want to naturally begin the sleep process, sleep clinicians are pointing to the ever-accesible presence of technology that stimulate our minds.

Do you have the itch to check your email just one more time before turning out the light?  Do you read an iPad or brightly lit digital reader right before bed?  Do you keep your smartphone by your bedside?  These highly animated and active devices also leave your brain activated and dancing around — never to be truly ‘turned off’.

Some women have noted that their perfectionist mentalities — the same drive that makes us want to “be everything to everyone” can keep them awake.  Thoughts of “how am I going to create a five-course meal after working all day and helping the kids with homework??” can increase anxiety not just at night but during the daytime as well.

One of the interesting points of the article that I took home, both as a therapist and as a woman, was that for some women the ‘3am worry hour’ may be the only time they get to themselves.  At 3am, no one is demanding anything of them or needing them to do something — they are left to their own devices.  It’s a ‘break’ from the waking day, a time when there might not seem to be enough hours to get everything done.  A child psychiatrist from New York notes that she was able to study for her board exams during the 4am-6am hours when no one else was awake and she couldn’t sleep.

Stress, anxiety, and “worrying and then worrying about the worry” can plague us all.  They can rob us of our sleep and our well-being.  What helps you to sleep?  And does it come at a cost?