What Is Revenge Sleep Procrastination? Why Moms Stay Up Way Too Late, For One
On the self-defeating phenomenon of parental “RSP.”
There are any number of reasons why a person might delay going to bed, even when they're tired and even when they know they're screwing over their future self — a habit known colloquially as revenge sleep procrastination. (Defined officially by the Sleep Foundation as "the decision to sacrifice sleep for leisure time that is driven by a daily schedule lacking in free time.") Some use the infantilizing "revenge bedtime procrastination," but we'll stick with the former and call it RSP for short. Maybe they don't want the party to end, or there's simply too much to get done around the house. After all, one 2019 study revealed that it's largely students and women who stubbornly stay up in this way. Or maybe these bleary-eyed sleep delayers are just fond of putting things off in general: Other research suggests that people who procrastinate in life are more likely to postpone sleep, too.
But few demographics may be as well suited to RSP as parents of young children, for whom the precious post-bedtime period is like an all too brief prison furlough. Finally, time to be a person again, instead of a mere dispenser of snacks and life lessons! Who could blame a fried mom or dad for milking their fleeting hours of freedom with another Netflix episode or a little more glazed scrolling?
We tell ourselves we'll pay for this tiny rebellion with an extra cup of coffee the next morning, no big deal. But that doesn't make RSP a smart move, especially if you do it consistently. Though it may sound square, getting too little sleep is really, really bad for you — which, ironically, most any parent knows firsthand. Remember when you were so tired during the newborn era you felt like you'd been drugged? Like, absentmindedly-brushing-your-teeth-with-hand-soap-instead-of-toothpaste tired? Back then, most parents could only dream of the chance to string six or seven hours of slumber together. Why are we so willing to squander that sleep now?
How to put RSP to Bed, Once and for All
Most of the available advice for curbing RSP centers on the same sleep hygiene tips you've read a thousand times: Don't look at your phone before bed, take Vitamin D or melatonin, avoid alcohol in the evening, and so on. But none of that addresses the psychological need that RSP fulfills. It's not that you need helpful ways to fall or stay asleep. It's that you need your days to belong to you more. You need to not feel so deprived of autonomy and joy that you're willing to sacrifice your physical health for a little taste of it.
So, how do we accomplish that? Here's what has worked for some.
1. Teach your child that parents need breaks — and take them.
When your kid wants your attention now now now and will not let it go, even once you're phoning in your share of the hand-puppet conversation and slacking off on the Lego construction, tell them explicitly that you need a few minutes. This may sound obvious... but how many parents actually do it? One mom told Scary Mommy that every morning, she tells her four-year-old that they can play together once she finishes her coffee. Her kid gets that this rule is sacrosanct, genially says "OK," and hangs out until the mug is empty (he checks periodically). Whether that mom spends the brief window scrolling TikTok or staring at the ceiling's water stain is immaterial: The time is deliciously hers.
The American Psychological Association makes it abundantly clear that parents need time away from their kids to avoid wearing themselves too thin. It also makes clear that getting sufficient sleep is a big part of maintaining your sanity as a parent. If you're exhausted by parenting, it can affect your sleep, "which exacerbates the anxiety and irritability; then it becomes this loop that repeats itself daily." If you're never taking time for yourself and you're getting too little sleep, you're on the express train to crack-up-ville.
But then, taking a prolonged break isn't always feasible. So, the best alternative may be to carve out tiny breaks, venting steam so that you don't overheat. Parent-kid play seems to be where the need for a few minutes' rest crops up most. (After all, pretending to make a spatula talk for an hour is as draining as draining gets.) Luckily, there are ways to play without letting it subsume your Saturday. Phrases like "I can play in 10 minutes, but right now I'm going to read this magazine," and "I'm a little tired, can we draw together instead?" are 100 percent acceptable. And those breaks add up: By the end of the day, you might have spent a stretch of time doing stuff you enjoyed, taking pressure off your evening.
2. Alternate weekly nights off with your partner.
This rule allowed my husband and I to survive our son's infancy and early toddlerhood. Every Tuesday, one of us handled bath time/bedtime so the other could go to a bar or coffee shop and engage in our most cherished hobby: reading. (Well, that's what he did, anyway. I locked myself in the bedroom and read there; leaving the apartment seemed exhausting.) It was only one day every other week, but it was ecstatic to feel like the old me, beholden to no one. Weekly date nights were expensive and tiring; we had no interest in vacationing without our kid—but this we could manage, and every time we did it, we restored something. "I feel human again," my husband would say. On those nights, it felt a lot less necessary to stay up until midnight for no good reason.
Harvard Business Review says that maintaining a hobby as a stressed-out parent can help boost problem-solving skills. Why? Because "Solutions often come to us when we switch from focused thinking to diffuse thinking," the 2020 article notes. In other words, when we're happily needlepointing or woodworking or fiddling with ham radios, the answer to this or that conflict may float to the top of our minds. For my part, I'll mention that on those nights when it was my turn to dive into a book, I found that my habitual new-mom frazzledness quieted down, and I could think more rationally about, say, a problem at work or an uncomfortable chat I needed to have with a friend. It's almost like not being constantly stressed helps you think more clearly. Who knew?!
3. Invite your child into your interests, not just the other way around.
To support and encourage our kids' passions, we happily listen to them prattle on about why this Transformer is cooler than another and why a Pteranodon and a Pterodactyl are not the same. Which is how it should be. And the reverse is not only also possible, but wise. Inviting your child into what you care about broadens their horizons, helps them get to know you better, and, according to Boston child therapist Alison Ratner Mayer, "It sends the message to the child that their parents are having fun, true, honest, real fun, with them…there is nothing more validating to a child to see their parent enjoying themselves while spending time with them."
And, of course, there's the other upside: It lets you do stuff you enjoy while parenting. If you love birdwatching and you and your child spend a full day tracking an elusive hawk, are you going to feel cheated out of those hours enough to exhaust yourself before bedtime? Maybe not.
4. Encourage solo time.
Telling your child to go amuse themselves for a while can feel like a move straight out of the Bad Parent's Playbook, carrying an unfortunate "Go away, Mama's watching her stories" vibe. But alone time is something every kid needs — to strengthen their identity, learn independence, and figure out the world without your input. The awesome byproduct of your child's solo ventures? You, too, can spend a few minutes alone. You just have to let yourself be open to the experience. Often, according to Parents.com, parents struggle to step away from their kids, convinced they're supposed to be offering stimulation and guidance every second of every day. A word to the wise: That kind of thinking isn't only a path to RSP; it's a shortcut to mega-burnout. Do what you can to stop hovering before you lose your mind.
5. Shave down your schedule.
When we don't feel like our daily activities are productive or satisfying, it can make you feel like the day was filled with pointless activities. So, to make up for that lost time, we try to make up for it in the evening. To avoid feeling like you're wasting your day, try pruning your schedule to the things that make you feel happy and fulfilled.
The Bottom Line
When RSP rolls around this evening, ask yourself if you're longing for that ill-advised extra half-hour because you're genuinely enjoying yourself — or if you're pissed that the entire day was spent catering to everyone's needs but your own. If it's the latter, it's time to think about how your time might be better spent. Your child will always come first; that's a given. But that absolutely does not — and should not — mean that you have to come last. Carve out time for yourself, even if it's 10 minutes at a clip, and you might just find that cutting off your sleepy nose to spite your beleaguered face doesn't hold the same appeal.
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