Sleep and Relationships: An Inside Look

PHOTO: Dr. Jennifer Ashton conducted a sleep experiment with her husband.

Full disclosure: When I began this couple's sleep experiment, I would say my home sleeping situation was, in some ways, in critical condition.

On the good side of things, my family has always been committed to good sleep hygiene because we know how important sleep is for good health. We are so committed, in fact, that we have allowed a very easygoing attitude toward the logistics of our sleeping habits (i.e., who sleeps where).

On the bad side of things, our house was like a cross between musical beds and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

Sleep and Couples, For Better or Worse

This all started when I was an intern. My daughter was 6 six months old at the time, and not the best sleeper as an infant. My husband, a fellow physician, was also used to being "on-call" and being awakened during the night.

He was also a realist who knew he needed sleep. And despite an infant and a beeper that often went off at all hours, he was determined to get it. Answer: He brought our daughter into the bed with him when I was working nights, and she would cry at 2 a.m.

The result was that both daddy and baby slept like logs. My daughter became quite accustomed to sleeping with one or both parents and this habit took years to break.

The next problem in our increasingly dysfunctional sleep situation came when we got two dogs. We are a dog-loving family and so were used to having pets in the bedroom. At first, there were no issues. But as the dogs got bigger, so did their nocturnal noises: dreaming, scratching, licking, breathing and barking. All this woke me up at the drop of a dime.

5 Health Hazards Linked to Lack of Sleep

Finally, the snoring kicked in. My husband began to snore. While his snoring did not stem from something medically serious such as sleep apnea, it certainly had a serious effect on me. I awoke multiple times a night. And, like many women (and men, too), once I was up, I found it very difficult to fall back to sleep. What was happening here?

For most of my life, I have always been a good sleeper. I fall asleep within seconds of closing my eyes, and usually have no trouble waking up at or before my alarm the next morning.

Then, I became a mother. Suddenly, I felt as if I were sleeping with eyes wide shut, so to speak. I could swear that I heard a cry or call from my children in milliseconds. In speaking to other mothers, this is commonly accepted fact.

Next, I became an obstetrician. For nine years, I woke up at all hours of the night to deliver babies. I was trained and conditioned to be able to think clearly and perform surgically immediately after awakening.

So when I started having sleep problems at home, I was perplexed. Rather than really think about what was causing the problem, I, too (like my husband had done a decade prior), took the path of least resistance and just slinked off to a different room to get my precious sleep.

The good news is that I did, indeed, get a good night's sleep in another room. Incredibly good, actually!

But the bad news is that I missed sharing a sleep-cave with my husband. I felt embarrassed that this dysfunctional sleeping situation had infiltrated our family, and worried about how people would judge our habits. But I was determined to get good sleep no matter what, because I had sacrificed sleep for so many years taking care of my own babies, and delivering the babies of others.

The ABC News sleep experiment we did taught me a completely new way of approaching our sleep problems and habits. We made substantive changes in our bedroom environment based on the recommendations of our sleep expert, Dr. Wendy Troxel of the Sleep Medicine Institute at the University of Pittsburgh.

The sleep experiment. (Image credit: ABC News)

We got a king-size bed (we had been sleeping in the same queen-size bed since we got married 17 years ago) and put blackout shades on the windows (we never sleep late, so we never had any shades or drapes on our windows because we never needed them for privacy in the suburbs).

We taught our dogs to sleep with our teenage son (who loves having them in his room and isn't disturbed by their sounds) and, best of all, my husband trained himself to sleep on his side (a position in which he does not snore).

The data from our sleep study showed that my husband slept better with me by his side, and that I slept almost as well next to him, as I did alone. I had misjudged the entire situation.

For some people, however, insomnia and snoring can indicate serious medical problems like sleep apnea, depression, medication side effects or other physical issues. If your poor night's sleep is leaving you moody, distracted or drowsy at work or behind the wheel, seek proper medical evaluation.

Other important tips for good sleep hygiene include: setting a consistent sleep-waking schedule and sticking to it; avoiding caffeine or alcohol; "unplugging" from smartphones, laptops and the TV at least 30 minutes before bedtime; and making sure your mattress is comfortable and the temperature in your room is right for you. I recommend 65-67 degrees).

Sleep is important for your health, and can also affect your relationship, whether you sleep together as a couple, or apart.

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