How much are you getting?

Clue: your answer should be in hours. Forget sex, this is about something far more crucial to survival and much more likely to send you insane if you’re note getting enough of it: SLEEP.

Julia Baird (Aussie journalist, author, mother and Deputy Editor of Newsweek in NYC) recently published this piece on how women have more sleep problems than men. But is it due to workaholism, perfectionism or are we just whingers? Julia writes….

By Julia Baird

“If we are to take Napoleon Bonaparte seriously – and once upon a time people did – then perhaps we should all act like idiots. The man who won 40 battles before his defeat at Waterloo reckoned that when it came to sleep, there should be “six hours for a man, seven for a woman and eight for a fool”.

At least we should be sleeping that much. But we aren’t, and we are all suffering for it. Most of us should know that lack of deep sleep can raise blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, as well as increase the risk of obesity, heart disease and depression.

But I must admit I rolled my eyes when I heard that tireless feminist Naomi Wolf was telling women to get more sleep. It sounded so infantilising. Guess we should also eat our vegetables, floss our teeth and make our beds, right? Will adult women ever get past the toddler stage in public debate? I know, it’s well meaning enough; Wolf was prompted by Arianna Huffington, publisher of The Huffington Post, and Cindi Leive, editor of US women’s magGlamour, who began a campaign about sleep earlier this year, describing it as “the next feminist issue”. Huffington blames our fatigue on workaholism. Wolf blames a drive for perfection. Both fair points. But why is sleep a feminist issue? Is this something else women can’t get right, or just a symptom of a stretched, frantically multitasking culture? Aren’t we all tired?

Yes. Although it turns out women do have more sleep problems than men.

A 2007 US National Sleep Foundation survey, which polled 1003 women aged 18 to 64, found one in four women of childbearing age reported getting a good night’s sleep a few nights a month or less. Two thirds had problems sleeping at least a few nights a week. A study from Duke University in North Carolina found that women who suffer from lack of sleep are more depressed, hostile and angry than men who do. The authors concluded that bad sleep is more harmful to women’s cardiovascular health – and causes greater psychological distress.

The study’s author, Edward Suarez, an associate professor, said it was the first empirical evidence that supported what sleep researchers have long suspected: “poor sleep may have more serious health consequences for women than for men”.

But other research can be a little confused. Some academics say women are just a pack of whingers.

Researchers from Baltimore’s John Hopkins University found women of all ages have better sleep quality than men, but women complain they have it worse. Men, they concluded, self-medicate with alcohol or nobly endure it. Which doesn’t conflate with my personal research on blokes with man-flu, but anyway.

Perhaps it’s a question of precision. A recent Dutch study found women reported sleep accurately, but men tended to be optimistic, and exaggerate.

While the elderly men surveyed boasted about getting a great night’s sleep, women got 15 minutes more on average.


The only consolation may be that the older we get, the less sleep we need and the better it gets. But waiting until we are dragged off to retirement homes before we get some quality snoozing isn’t that inspiring. So what do we do?

We’re not fools, or toddlers. We know we should eat better, exercise more, not work too late or drink too much caffeine. That part is simple. What’s harder is tackling our own exhausting expectations of achievement and success, of professional ascension, perpetual family harmony and personal contentment, however you might measure that.

In a 2009 paper documenting a substantial drop in the happiness of women since the 1970s, economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson argue that “the increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood of believing that one’s life is not measuring up”. Reports on the unhappiness of women make us fret even more. Mothers are particularly tough on themselves – this generation has somehow turned parenting into a punishing, anxious profession.

But it’s not just mothers. Many of us nurse a nagging feeling that we should be doing more with our lives. We work constantly and take courses to try to still our minds. We click, tweet, poke and often relax in the same place we work: on our bottoms, in front of our computers. The more we have become free to pursue whatever dreams beckon us, the more we can too easily make ourselves miserable – and sacrifice our health and sleep – by trying to be everything, to everyone.

I can’t help but wonder if we allowed ourselves to fail more, wouldn’t more sleep follow?

Still, sleep is not a simple female issue, and there is no simple solution. All we can hope is that we are smart enough, when we need to be, to allow ourselves to desire, reach for and grasp that most ancient of delights – rest. It’s just that every time I contemplate it, I start dreaming about the freedom of the midnight hours: about dancing and cocktails, long, quiet stretches with books and my husband and friends and food and, yes, my computer – and wondering if it would be all right after all, as that great guru Jon Bon Jovi once said, to live while I’m alive and sleep while I’m dead.

[This article originally appeared here in the Sydney Morning Herald]

Julia Baird joined Newsweek in February 2007 as Senior Editor for Science, Society and Ideas. In 2009 she was made Deputy Editor and began writing a weekly column. Previously, she was at the Sydney Morning Herald from 1998-2007, in various roles.  In 2006 she was also the host of “Sunday Profile” on ABC radio.  Her Ph.D. was on female politicians and the press, and her book on the subject – Media Tarts – was published in 2004. You can also follow her on Twitter here, and I recommend that you do.

How much sleep do you get? How much sleep do you WANT?