Why moms are staying up late at night, sacrificing sleep for sanity with ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’: ‘It’s as close to vacation as you can get’

·8-min read
Many people, but moms especially, are putting off sleep to get some
Many people, but moms especially, are putting off sleep to get some "me time." It even has a name: "revenge bedtime procrastination." (Photo: Getty Images)

In a bid for some alone time or just a quiet moment, people — but moms especially — are sacrificing sleep for sanity, staying up into the wee hours of the night to squeeze out some “me time.”

There’s even a name for it: “revenge bedtime procrastination.”

So why are moms in particular so willing to give up a good night’s rest? “In a word, silence,” Jorrie Varney, a Kansas-based registered nurse, writer and mother of two, tells Yahoo Life. “In more words, there are no obligations after bedtime. Every decision I make and task I accomplish — or don’t — is for me.”

Varney shares that she tries “really hard to protect this time and keep it for myself,” and typically spends it reading, watching “bingeable” TV or “mindlessly” scrolling on social media.

“Of course there are nights that I’m up late doing things for my children — like laundry for the next day or snacks for a class party — but I’m able to listen to a podcast or watch a show, uninterrupted,” Varney says. “This time is my saving grace at the end of the day. I look forward to it every day, planning what late night snack I’m going to eat or drink I’m going to have. It’s as close to vacation as you can get on a Thursday night and I love it!”

Katy Anderson, a writer and mom of three boys, echoes Varney’s vacation sentiment, writing on Mom.com that being up late while the rest of the household is sleeping is “like a mini-vacation, one that I desperately need after a day that’s almost entirely devoted to the needs of others.”

Another mom, Lisa Sadikman, shares on Scary Mommy that “most nights my craving for ‘me time’ is even more powerful than my desperate need for a full night’s sleep.” The writer and mom of three girls describes a quiet house, often only achieved once everyone has gone to bed, as her “personal version of nirvana.”

Why moms in particular are engaging in “revenge bedtime procrastination”

The term "bedtime procrastination" was coined by behavioral scientist Floor M. Kroese and her team in 2014. "Revenge" was reportedly added in response to China's 12-hour work days, leading workers to "stay up as their only way to take back some control of their time."

It's no surprise the behavior is manifesting in moms, says Amanda Palo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, who tells Yahoo Life, “Although gender roles may not be as traditional as they have been in the past, there are many families in which moms may be doing a greater proportion of the childrearing activities. Being a parent is a 24-hour a day job. When you add in working outside of the home, plus regular life stressors, plus a global pandemic that has been ongoing for two years, it’s easy to see why parents might be feeling increased stress and may not have much ‘me time.’”

Helena Rempala, a psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, agrees, telling Yahoo Life, “If you really have a good sense of time you realize you don't have time to fit in everything you would like to do in one day.” She adds, “If you prioritize, you have to give up some things, which is very hard.”

Most people — whether they’re parents or not — can identify with the feeling that they are working too much and don’t get a break, says Palo. “And for parents in particular, the only break they might have is after their kids are in bed,” she says. “It’s natural to want to do something you enjoy or do something to unwind when you finally have the chance to catch your breath, and sometimes this may feel more important than sleep.”

Why people are willing to forgo sleep

So why is sleep something that people are often willing to sacrifice so they can do other things? “It’s the softest target, which we take for granted,” Dr. Abhinav Singh, medical review expert at SleepFoundation.org and medical director of the Indiana Sleep Center, tells Yahoo Life.

Rempala agrees, saying that, when it comes to sleep in general, “we don’t really value it as much” as other activities.

She also points out that most people feel they “can function on very little sleep at times,” even if it’s “not optimal.” And in fact, more than 35 percent of American adults report sleeping on average less than seven hours per night, according to the Sleep Foundation — that falls short of the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night for adults ages 18 to 64 (adults 65 and older need seven to eight hours of sleep each night).

With so many people functioning on not enough sleep on a daily basis, it can feel like “there’s no immediate negative consequences,” says Rempala. But as both Singh and Palo point out, that’s not actually the case.

“While the idea of sacrificing sleep to engage in leisure activities is understandable and tempting, it is not without consequences,” says Palo. “Decades of research have shown us that sleep is integral to maintaining physical and mental health. Lack of sleep has both short- and long-term negative health impacts, with sleep deprivation affecting things like our attention, memory and ability to regulate our emotions. We can recover from a few nights of sleep deprivation here or there, but when sleep deprivation occurs over the long term, this can lead to more significant negative consequences.”

Regularly putting off bedtime and consequently not getting enough sleep can become “a vicious cycle,” says Rempala. “The more tired we are from lack of sleep, the more we’ll need this decompressing time.” She argues: “The more rested you’ll be, the less winding down downtime you'll need.”

Singh says not getting enough sleep can leave you cranky, hungry and “feeling worse” the next day. In addition, driving while drowsy — which affects your attention, coordination and reaction time — the next day is dangerous, he points out. By robbing sleep in an effort to gain more time, “you think you've scored a victory but you haven’t,” Singh says.

So how can you get some “me” time without sacrificing sleep?

“It is definitely hard to fit all of our responsibilities, needs, and desired activities into a 24-hour period,” acknowledges Palo. “Moms, and parents in general, deserve a chance to recharge, connect, and have ‘me time.’ Not only does this help with mood and overall sense of well-being, but it helps parents be better prepared for the demands of the next day.”

So how can parents — and really anyone who is time-crunched — make it work? Both Palo and Rempala agree that balance and flexibility are key. “Catch the breaks when they come,” suggests Rempala. “I don’t think it’s good for us to wait until the evening. We may not realize there are moments when we can decompress [rather than] this idea that it has to be the perfect time or it has to be quiet or that it has to be ideal — ideal is the enemy of good.”

Rempala also suggests finding relaxing activities that don’t interfere with sleep. “Instead of scrolling through the phone or watching TV, go to bed with an audiobook that you’ve wanted to read for the last month or with the podcast that you’ve been dying to listen to,” she says.

She suggests setting a timer for “as much time as you think you want to devote to this activity,” and then getting comfy in bed and turning off the light. “Your body and your brain will decide how quickly you will fall asleep,” Rempala says. “If you need a longer unwinding time, you will enjoy the story but with no unnecessary lights that can be too activating and make you stay up way too long. If you need the sleep, you will drift off before the timer goes off.”

When possible and if available, Palo recommends that parents rely on their support systems, such as partners, family, friends and babysitters, “to carve out alone time before it’s time for them to head to bed themselves.” She adds: “Maybe it’s sneaking away for an hour to go to an art class, fitness class or grab coffee with a friend. Two-parent households can alternate child care activities like bath and bedtime to give each parent a break, during which time they can engage in a relaxing or enjoyable activity.”

When that isn’t possible, Palo says that “moms can try to be creative to maximize ‘me time’ while not sacrificing sleep. This could look like reserving one to two hours in the evening to watch an episode or two of a favorite show or read and then heading to bed at a reasonable time.”

Inevitably, however, “we might get carried away at times and cut into sleep time,” Palo acknowledges. But, she says, “we just want to minimize this and build in time to recoup the sleep debt in between. Importantly, when attempts to de-stress and decompress on your own aren’t enough, reaching out for support from a therapist is another good option.”

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