These past 10 months, with a baby who wakes for three hours straight in the middle of the night, have been particularly brutal. There has also been little chance to “sleep when the baby sleeps” (among the most irritating advice I’ve been offered) when you have another child at home – and a job.
But now that we are emerging from the fog, and she is sleeping better, it is time to address my own sleep health. I wake at the creak of a floorboard or cough in the night, then lie awake for hours berating myself for not using the time to SLEEP! It’s something The New York Times has recently called “momsomnia” – and I know it affects parents of all ages, even long after the babies have grown up.
It’s an extreme solution, admittedly, but I’ve decided to check into a hotel for the night and ask Dr Robbins to help me get on track (there’s no point trying out her techniques if a child is keeping me up as well). I need to re-learn something I’ve been trying to teach my babies – and yet haven’t mastered myself. It’s something she is passionate about: as well as her own book, she has just released the “Savoir Sleep Script”, a free and available-to-all set of science-backed techniques, including a meditation to help us re-learn how to sleep properly.
Dr Robbins, a new mother like me, is sympathetic about my sleep problems – and my concerns about the long-term effects. I tell her I read a study by the University of California which found that new mothers who don’t get at least six hours’ sleep a night can add three to seven years to their biological age. She is kind: “We believe we can halt the damage – starting tonight. We just need to look at your sleep routine, freshen it up and address any bad habits.” I can almost feel the relief of a restorative good night’s sleep starting to happen.
First, she reminds me of the vital need to prioritise sleep. Along with making us feel good in the here and now, one of the long-term benefits comes from fascinating new research published in the journal Science shows just how sleep helps protect the brain.
“We discovered that over the course of the day, the brain produces toxins, the accumulation of which is associated with neuro cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” Dr Robbins explains. “When we sleep, not only does the brain stop producing these toxins, but it also produces a cerebral fluid which, in essence, pressure-washes the brain to remove the toxins that have built up.”
In addition, as cold and flu season strikes – with what feels like particularly nasty variants this year – Dr Robbins says “how sleep affects our immunity is so relevant right now”. Research shows that our bodies produce and release proteins called cytokines that target infection and inflammation when we sleep. “There is one very interesting study that has looked at rhinovirus, a sister pathogen of SARS-Cov-2. The researchers found that those who are sleep-deprived had more than a twofold greater risk of colds and flu,” Dr Robbins says.
Not only that, but being sleep deprived can affect how well we respond to vaccines – both Covid-19 booster jabs as well as seasonal flu. “In those people who are vaccinated, we see an increased development of antibodies to combat the viral pathogen, and that’s accelerated when you couple vaccine appointments with healthy sleep duration,” Dr Robbins says.