Short sleep duration in adults is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “less than 7 hours of sleep per 24-hour period.” The map above shows the national prevalence of short sleep duration by county — a tool that might be helpful to no one except Santa to find out who is sleeping and who’s awake.
Many adults resort to sleeping pills to quiet their thoughts and catch some “zzzzs.” For Olga Khazan, taking Ambien leaves her “kind of out of it” the following day:
At last comes an explanation: According to the new book Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, the director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, the sleep people get on sleeping pills like Ambien is not true sleep. Drugs like these simply “switch off the top of your cortex, the top of your brain,” he explained to New York Magazine, “and put you into a state of unconsciousness.” That’s not sleep; that’s cryogenics. According to Walker, sleeping-pill sleep doesn’t have the same restorative powers—and there are lots, from an immune boost to emotional resilience—as good, old-fashioned zzzzs.
Sleeping pills don’t even seem to work all that well. It’s true that some people say they fall asleep faster and sleep better on pills. But, as Walker writes, there’s little difference between the amount of time it takes someone to fall asleep with the help of a pill, compared to a placebo.
Khazan says cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is now favored over sleeping pills as the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia in adults:
A major part of it is proper “sleep hygiene”—well-known advice like keeping the bedroom dark and cold, using your frigid cave-bed only for sleep and sex, and turning off anything that emits light a few hours before bed. But another element, paradoxically, involves purposefully getting less sleep than you might want to—at least at first.
This process, called sleep restriction, involves setting a wake-up time and hitting it at the same time every day (no snoozing—snoozing is also bad). Then, you only go to bed when you’re very sleepy—say six hours before the wake-up time. If you successfully sleep through the night, you gradually allow yourself to go to bed a few minutes earlier, until you’re sleeping the amount you want to.
Sleep problems are a bit different in children than they are in adults. First of all, pediatricians don’t prescribe sleeping pills for their patients who aren’t getting enough sleep (for teenagers and young adults, that’s practically all of them). Improving sleep hygiene is the go-to focus of our advice, and as we’ve mentioned before on The PediaBlog, turning off all electronic screens way before bedtime and keeping them out of the bedroom is an excellent first step.
It’s also important for parents to recognize that good sleep habits begin very early in life. The National Sleep Foundation advises parents of young babies to be patient:
Babies need a lot of sleep. When they’re between four and 11 months old, they need 12 to 15 hours a day (nighttime sleep plus naps). And at a certain point, they can get a lot of those hours in consecutively at night. The key is sleep training.
Sleep training when babies are too young doesn’t work—it usually takes babies about three to six months to develop the circadian rhythm that they’ll need to want to sleep at night and be awake during the day. But once that happens, babies can sleep nine to 12 hours at night. While each baby reacts a little differently to sleep training and there are varying methods, there are a few key points to keep in mind.
- Babies need to learn how to soothe themselves. Putting a baby down drowsy (not fully asleep) encourages him or her to fall asleep on his or her own. That means when little ones wake up in the middle of the night, they will know how to self-soothe and put themselves back to sleep without crying out for you.
- A consistent bedtime is key. Sleep training is about creating a brand new schedule, which means every night, bedtime should happen around the same time.
- There might be setbacks. There might be nights where it doesn’t go very smoothly (especially if a baby gets sick or a parent is traveling). But keeping a routine is key.
- There is no right way to sleep train. There are many different approaches to sleep training, and there are parents who swear by each and every one of them. Some experts, for example, advocate letting a child “cry it out,” while others don’t.
- A parent will ultimately be successful. Between 70 and 80 percent of nine-month-olds sleep through the night, so parents shouldn’t get discouraged.