Sleep is a big topic these days. Turn on the radio and you’ll probably here someone discussing sleep medicine. National Public Radio has broadcast several conversations about sleep recently on topics ranging from surgical options to sleep-inducing drinks. And books are being written everyday on sleep topics, as well as ongoing articles in national magazines.

One new book I recommend reading is called Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by author David K. Randall. The writer became interested in sleep after experiencing sonambulation, or sleepwalking. The book is well written and contains some useful information. One topic Mr. Randall explores is whether the common practice of sleeping with a spouse or other family members may be harmful to sleep.

In my own research, I have found that the percentage of parents who share a bed with infants have risen from 5.5% in 1993-1994 to12.8% in 1999-2000. The controversy lies in the fact that some parents feel it is a bonding experience, while others, usually health-care providers, discourage the practice because of safety concerns. There have been reported deaths when parents roll over and smother their children, and I’ll blog more on this topic at a later date.

Many couples feel that it’s almost unthinkable to sleep apart, right? Wrong! In 2001, the National Sleep Foundation reported that 12% of American couples slept apart with that number rising to 23% in 2005.

One British study has shown that sleeping together can be bad for your health. Dr. Neil Stanley reports that couples experience up to 50% more sleep disturbances when sleeping with their spouse. This makes sense to me. How many times have your patients said, “I can’t sleep! My husband’s snoring is keeping me awake!”

During the last year, I have seen three different newly married young men coming in to our sleep clinic complaining of insomnia. When I questioned when their insomnia had started, they said around the time they got married. Now I understand why! The men may have experienced difficulty sleeping, because they are in the process of learning how to sleep with another person.

It actually takes us time to adjust to sleeping with a partner. Most patients grew up sleeping alone and had a bed all to themselves. Throw in another person, some with sleep issues, and you can create an environment where it becomes difficult to sleep.

I also see a growing number of older couples who sleep separately. Usually it starts when one spouse is snoring or experiences increasing movements during sleep.

A few of my patients report sleeping apart because their spouses have REM sleep behavior disorder, and safety had become an issue. Interestingly, even after the sleep disorder was corrected, these patients chose to continue to sleep separately, because they found they slept better alone.

However, the majority of patients I see come to the sleep clinic because their spouse has threatened that if they don’t get their snoring, or other sleep disorder, under control they were going to have to sleep alone. The threat and the thought of sleeping alone drive these patients to seek help. So not everyone wants, or enjoys, sleeping alone.

Most would agree that the intimacy two people experience when sharing a bed outweighs the potential for interrupted sleep. However, if a spouse’s snoring or other sleep disorders is keeping your patient awake, you may want to suggest they try sleeping separately, at least until the disorder is controlled. I’m curious. Would you ever tell a patient they might be better off sleeping separately from their spouse?

Sharon M. O’Brien, MPAS, PA-C, works at Presbyterian Sleep Health in Charlotte, N.C. Her main interest is helping patients understand the importance of sleep hygiene and the impact of sleep on health.

References

  1. Wolfson A and Lee K. “Pregnancy and the Postpartum Period.” Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine, Fourth Edition. Philadelphia ,PA. Elsevier Saunders, 2005.
  2. Troxel W.M. “It’s More than Sex: Exploring the Dyadic Nature of Sleep and Implications for Health.” Psychosom Med. 2010;72(6): 578–586.