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Sleep habits of the grudgingly mature

Close-up of alarm clock on night table

Here’s a pressing question: Does the need to pee wake us up, or do we wake up for another reason entirely and then decide to pee?

And another one: Do we wake up early because our eyelids have thinned out so that even the first light of dawn penetrates, or do we wake up early because we went to bed early?

I’ve always been a morning person. I’m out of bed at dawn because I crave a cup of tea, because my mind is fresh and eager to work, and because I go to bed early after waking up early, so the cycle goes.

Actually, I wasn’t always an early-morning person. It began when I became a mother, when the day started with the rising sun, when I learned to sleep less deeply to keep one ear tuned to the night sounds of my kids, when I couldn’t obsess over a broken night’s sleep because the next day’s needs were at my bedside, shaking my arm, wanting breakfast.

And anyway, what’s with the eight-hour dictate? Historically, it dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when Conventional Wisdom divided a 24-hour day into equal thirds for work, rest, and sleep. But do we really need those full eight hours? Recent studies state that seven hours work just fine for most people, even six for some of us as we get older. And if those hours are broken up, four and three, or three and two and two, that’s okay, too.

I just tested this out. We had been planning to travel this Thanksgiving and eat, with family, at our very favorite inn in Woodstock, Vermont. At the last minute, our plans had to change. I learned this Monday afternoon at 4 and was at my local supermarket at 7:15 Tuesday morning – because if we don’t go away, guess who hosts? I’m ready to pass that torch, let me tell you, but there’s a whole other blog. For now, suffice it to say that I wasn’t a happy camper slogging through the supermarket, and once the food was stashed in my fridge, I refused to give it another thought. My Wednesday was relaxed – a little work, a little tennis, a little reading, dinner out with my husband. I think I wanted to pretend, for as long as possible, that we were still going away.

That little fantasy lasted until 2 AM on Thanksgiving day, when I woke up after four hours of sleep and realized that, other than buying food, I hadn’t done one thing. Not. One. Thing. Granted, there would only be 8 of us. Still, I would normally have pre-cooked things like squash bisque, stuffing, cornbread, apple crumble, and mulled cider. I might have even made the salad and covered it tightly. None of that this year.

Realizing this, I had a mini-panic. Knowing I would never fall back to sleep then, I got out of bed and set my 2 AM table – good china and silver, water glasses, wine glasses, candles, linen napkins pulled through ribbon rings, serving plates set nearby. When I returned to bed an hour later, I was tired again but satisfied. I fell asleep for another three hours. Thanksgiving Day was wonderful, and I was no more tired than anyone else by its end.

I wasn’t thinking of being tired, therefore I wasn’t tired. For me, there’s definitely a psychological element to it. Another recent example? After a night of broken sleep because I was anticipating taking an early flight to visit one of my sons, I got out of bed at four-thirty to shower, pack, and head to the airport.  Debarking at the end of the flight, I hit the ground running and was busy all day, but didn’t think of being tired until later that night, when everyone else was tired, too.

Bottom line? When physical energy lags in we grudgingly mature, mental energy can give it a boost. My sleep may not be as smooth now as it was a decade or two ago.  But the more agitated I grow about waking up, the more trouble I have falling back to sleep. That’s why I love the idea of embracing insomnia. Occasionally, I sleep badly, totaling only four or five hours. If I get out of bed convinced I’m in for a bad day, I am. Conversely, if I get out of bed telling myself I’m just fine, I am. A mid-afternoon nap is nice. If that isn’t possible, though, no sweat. I simply tell myself that I’ll sleep the next night. And I do.

I’m simplifying this, of course.   There are scientific reasons, both physical and psychological, for poor sleep. Sleep apnea is one, but there are others that are just as troubling. If you suffer from one of those, I feel for you.

Blessedly, I only suffer from age.  How about you? How do you sleep now, compared with how you slept 20 years ago? What wakes you up? Is your daily functioning affected by how much you sleep on a given night? And if you do embrace insomnia and climb out of bed, do you read? Fold laundry? Do crossword puzzles?

14 Comments

  1. Avatar Gwyn on December 4, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    Unfortunately I am a night shift nurse… so my sleeping habits stink!!!! But if I can’t sleep I usually have a book under my pillow by my favorite author!

  2. Avatar Susie on December 7, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    My sleep habits since hitting 60 sound like yours. Same pee question too.
    Finding I need less sleep now. Just hate looking and looking at clock in order to give myself permission to get up.

  3. Avatar Evelyn on December 7, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    Lousy sleeper! If I get five hours of uninterrupted sleep it is a miracle. Either I’m heading to the bathroom, or having some kind of ache that’s keeping me up. I usually read before I head to be. Hen I read the same sentence 10 times, I finally head to bed. If sleep doesn’t come, I take a sleeping pill. Must get some sleep before heading to work.

  4. Avatar JD Last on December 7, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    My husband and I have a total of 7 children, and although three of them are now living (mostly) independently, I continue to be a sleep deprived mother, averaging 4-6 hours a night. It’s not enough rest to perform at my best at work and at home, but that’s the story of motherhood – the ones that rob you of sleep are the very same ones that necessitate that you sleep well (for the wellbeing of everyone!). I survive on naps, an awesome husband and a sense of haha!

    On those rare nights that I can’t sleep for reasons other than the kids, I wake my husband up and he prays with me. So thankful to have him in my life.

  5. Avatar Peggy on December 7, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    I thought I was reading about myself. I wake up often during the night and I have no idea why either. When I turned 60 everything went kaboom.
    If I wake up and can’t get back to sleep I get up and sew

  6. Avatar Darlene Deluca on December 7, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    Now that my kids are grown/in college, I sleep more. Or at least better, because I’m not sleeping so lightly. My husband used to say I slept so lightly I could “hear a mouse fart.” Like you, I kept one ear tuned to the kids and any movement/issues from them. I’m definitely not a morning person. Now that I’m writing full time, I’m enjoying the luxury of snuggling in a tad later.

  7. Avatar Barbara Scherer on December 8, 2015 at 12:07 am

    Most nights I retire at 1:30 am. About 5 1/2 hours sleep will be okay for me. Then I get restless and once I’m fully awake, it takes a couple hours for me to get back to sleep. However, when at any place other than home, I can sleep up to 7 1/2 hours. Occasionally I can’t seem to get to sleep until as late as 5am. Then I usually snuggle up in my recliner and read.

    • Barbara Delinsky Barbara Delinsky on December 8, 2015 at 5:47 am

      Me, too, Barbara! When I’m anywhere but here at home, I sleep longer! Why is that????

  8. Avatar Judy in Ohio on December 8, 2015 at 2:39 am

    It’s 2:20 am and I am reading this! Some nights insomnia is an issue. Often when it hits, I get up and do what is pressing on my mind. This helps me relax and go to sleep eventually. At times I read or write. If I am tired and go to sleep early, I too, wake early. As I age..I wish for little naps. On the weekends I sneak one at times and it feels good!
    I average 6 hours a night, but could use more. If I don’t excercise, I have great trouble sleeping. As I age, I sleep less and wake as soon as it is light out.
    I don’t know what causes me to wake up. On occasion its hot flashes or my sweetheart tossing because he can’t sleep and has woken up too. If we snuggle, sometimes we fall back asleep for a little while..other times we just lay there quietly. I have concluded that the older we get, the less we can sleep. Like you, if I let myself get grumpy about it I will, but if I just let it flow, it’s easier to cope. Working full time and being tired a lot seems to just be my life at this point. My sweetheart is 60 he has very few nights that he feels he got a good nights rest. The earlier he goes to sleep though, the earlier he wakes up!

  9. Avatar Paula Lambert on December 8, 2015 at 6:15 am

    Like you, my sleep pattern changed when I had my son (31 years ago). I still sleep with my cell phone beside the bed in case I am needed during the night. I am also a RN, so you have to be ready for anything at a moment’s notice. I still work full-time, so if I find myself up in the middle of the night, I just get busy and know I will sleep good that night!

  10. Avatar Jan on December 8, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Before a divorce at age 30, I slept a solid 8 hours, awoke refreshed and my feet hit the floor running. Insomnia set in post divorce and living on my own for the first time in my life. But life goes on even if you are tired…family, work, always something that needs to be done so you plow through the long hours of the day. So set the pattern for the next 30-plus years. Now I am retired so I can go back to bed or take the power nap later in the day if needed … a lot less stress in my life and enjoying it more. The quiet, early morning hours are now my friend (rather than my nemisis) when I read, sew, knit, or write a letter. Life is very good!

  11. Avatar Teresa Rice on December 8, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    I’m on several meds for lupus, so I suffer with insomnia every so often, which I’m used to. When I hit 60 several mo ago this pattern started: I go to bed about 11, go right to sleep, wake up at 2 to pee, back to sleep, up at 4 to pee. Or bed at 11, up at 3 to pee, and again at 5. So I never get a restful nights sleep…but at least I don’t wet the bed! 🙂

  12. Avatar Rosella Margaroli on December 8, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    I used to sleep consistently 7 to 8 hours a night. Since menopause, sleep has become an issue. Both falling asleep and staying asleep. In general I go to bed around midnight and wake up every time at 3 am. Sometimes I go back to sleep after going to the bathroom, other times my mind is fully awake and I start reading until I feel sleepy again. I became intrigued by the sleeping patterns and last year I got a fitness band that also tracks sleep and shows you the periods of light sleep, deep sleep and REM. I noticed that my REM cycles are really long, and this seem to be consistent with the fact that I do remember many of my dreams in the morning. Deep sleep cycle are very short instead, which apparently is a common pattern as we age.

  13. Avatar Marintha Farber on December 15, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    Sleep? What’s that? After successfully bribing my second child to stay in her bed by purchasing a small TV with a built in VHS (yes – that long ago), I reclaimed my bed. Still dragon sleeping because she was only 9 at the time and sleeping in a loft bed. But that too passed. Oldest child moved back in with me, bringing her 6 month old daughter, so dragon-sleep rears it head again (doesn’t matter that she’s the one getting up with the baby, I still hear every whimper). Daughter and granddaughter (now 6 years old) move out and second daughter, her hubby and 6 month old move in with me. (Does anyone see a pattern here?) So grandchild #2 is now 6, and grandchild #3 is 2. Don’t get me wrong – I love having my babies (and their babies) here. But sleep hasn’t really changed for me since I gave birth for the first time 32 years ago. The only minor difference now is that I seem to tolerate the short hours much better than I did back then.

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