In my mother’s bedroom was a “picture” on the wall of a baby sleeping. It was “mixed media,” consisting of a paper head tucked under a scrap of real blanket and embellished with the real curls from my little brother’s first haircut. When I was little this fascinated me because of the mixture of reality and fantasy. Was that paper head really my brother’s picture? Where was the rest of the blanket? Why was only my youngest brother depicted? My hair was just as red and curly. That didn’t reach down into my struggle with reality versus fantasy, which seems to have been lifelong. Maybe it’s the reading and writing. I would not have been surprised if the baby had opened his eyes. (I presume he was male -- he only had a head and I knew his hair was male.) When I asked, I was told my aunt made this collage.
I don’t recall anyone’s potty training being much of a deal at our house, but naps were different, a battleground for me. I was the oldest and when I was the only, my mother and I lay down for our naps together. Very cozy. Then came a brother. And another brother. At that point my mother maxed out. She had the idea that I was “withholding” sleep in order to make trouble.
The worst example was one day when she had promised the family would go see “Fantasia,” newly released, so we needed to have our naps because it would be late before we went to bed. But I tried to do down our steep driveway on roller skates and scraped my knees into hamburger -- again. I couldn’t go to sleep. I just bawled. She threatened that if I didn’t nap, there would be no “Fantasia.” I didn’t. There wasn’t. When my father got home after work and discovered the “Fantasia” attendance was cancelled, he was more devastated than I was. I didn’t really know what it was anyway.
My birthday was in late October so I was technically too young for kindergarten, but as soon as I had that birthday, my mother went to work to get me accepted into afternoon kindergarten so she and “the boys” could nap. It was not a bad solution to our screaming matches. Except that she got a little dramatic: she put me on the knee of the principal’s three-piece suit and claimed I was killing she and my brothers with my wakefulness. (I was impressed by the idea that I had the power to murder.) I joined the class after the social circles had formed. Since there were no other kids our age in the neighborhood, I had zero social skills. The few I had pertained to boys since I had brothers. My feet were on the outlier path and have been ever since. It wasn’t about sex. It was about “getting along.”
So I was interested to see an article by Perri Klass MD, who often takes on quirky subjects. She says, “Most parents cherish toddlers’ naps as moments of respite and recharging, for parent and child alike; . . . napping problems have often been treated by pediatricians as parents’ “limit-setting” problems.”. . . “napping in children actually is a complex behavior, a mix of individual biology, including neurologic and hormonal development, cultural expectations and family dynamics.” “Possibly because of the intense synaptic activity that goes on in their highly active, highly connected brains, young children are less able to tolerate long periods of time awake.”
Why can’t kids be like puppies and just pile up to sleep for a while? Maybe we interfere and schedule too much. Current thinking is that the “circadian process,” . . . “works a little like a clock, tying our sleep to schedules and to cycles of light and dark, regardless of how much we have or have not slept. This interacts with the “homeostatic process” which works differently, pushing us harder toward sleep the longer we stay awake and building up sleep pressure.”
If you get off schedule because of something unusual happening -- a trip, company, catching up work late at night -- then habituation comes all undone. None of the cues that normally tip you towards sleep are there. And then if there are hard tasks, much commotion, a lot of things to think about or problems to solve, the “homeostatic process” wants you to sleep.
“Generally, new infants sleep between feedings in short periods both days and nights.” I’ve never raised a human baby, but mammal babies of various kinds seem to go “four and four,” four hours asleep and four hours awake. A feeding on awakening and a feeding on dozing off.
Dr. Klass assures us that “Sometime after the first birthday, the . . . naps are consolidated into one, usually in the late morning or early afternoon.” That when the mammals usually lay-up to sleep for a bit in mid-day, especially if they are diurnal animals who like the half-light of early morning and evening. But for humans, “The rationale for having your afternoon nap over by 3 p.m. is to build up enough sleep drive so you can fall asleep at night.”
“Go to sleep,” my mother would call, as though it were something I could control. Now Dr. Klass says, “there is a great deal of individual variation, and many parents struggle with a child who seems too eager to do without a nap.” And as the tempers of both parties rise, the likelihood of real sleep dims and withdraws.
“By age 5, about 80 percent of kids have given up a nap — that means one in five still napping.” What’s a kindergarten teacher to do?
Those insatiably curious people in their white coats run around recording everything. “They also found that individual children’s sleep needs and sleep patterns tended to be consistent through age 10. In other words, children who slept less than their peers as infants grew into older children who seemed to need less sleep.” No surprise.
But this factoid raises questions: “A 2005 study of American children ages 3 to 8 showed distinct differences between black and white children, too. While total sleep duration for the two groups was similar, black children napped more and tended to be older when they gave up their naps.” Is that good or bad?
Now we get into the chemical stuff that we want to know so we can simply give the kids a pill. (Be careful about that. Death due to antihistamines used as sleeping pills for children is not unknown.) “Dr. Monique LeBourgeois, a sleep scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and her colleagues recently conducted the first study on how napping affects the cortisol awakening response, a burst of hormone secretion known to take place shortly after morning awakening. They showed that children produce this response after short naps in the morning and afternoon, though not in the evening, and it may be adaptive in helping children respond to the stresses of the day.”
“I think there’s a dire need for adults in general to be in tune with individual children’s physiology,” Dr. LeBourgeois said. “What are the capabilities, and what are the limits?”
There seems to be a long continuum of parent involvement in their children from zilch to helicoptering, and a parallel continuum of from those who live in chaos to those who live by elaborate charts and clocks. As much variation in household style as in kid physiology. Parents need a calibration adjustment system that works, especially when they kids are different kinds and ages. Of course, it’s partly cultural. One of the nice things about computers is that they seem to have broken up the suburbs who lived by the television fifteen-minute intervals with hourly bathroom breaks that show up as water demand spikes.
“If the child is stopping the napping, that represents a process of neurological maturation,” Dr. Jenni said. “The ability to tolerate wakefulness is an indication that the brain is maturing.”
The rest of the story is that moms need naps, too. My own collapsed on the sofa late in the afternoon and I know from monitoring my glucose that I go into a decline about then as well. Why fight it? Why doesn’t this country have siestas? Surely it’s not because we all have mature brains!