Sleep debt – is it really a big deal?

Sleep debt – is it really a big deal?

Sleep debt may be a relatively new concept to you. It’s not bandied about as much as the term sleep deprivation or  even the hash tag #needmoresleep. But it’s a real phenomenon – and a growing problem.


Most people think of debt in terms of owing money. You fall into debt when you miss a payment or two… or you simply don’t have the funds to cover what is due.

Sleep debt is sleep you have missed; whether it is a missed payment of an hour or two a night (partial sleep deprivation) or you haven’t slept at all (total sleep deprivation).

Just like monetary debt, sleep debt is cumulative. It builds up over time.


We all want enough money in the bank to cover our living expenses. But do you realise that the act of being awake is a form of literal living expense?  While we’re awake we’re accumulating fatigue (tiredness, or mental and physical weariness). To recharge we NEED sleep.

Let’s say that the average adult needs eight hours of sleep a night (yes, adults need between 7 and 9 hrs a night).

This adult will accumulate one brick of fatigue for every two hours they’re awake. For the sake of convenience, let’s put those fatigue bricks in a backpack to help us carry them. After being awake for a 16-hr day, we’re carrying eight bricks on our back, that’s a heavy load!

Sleep is a way of recharging; effectively removing the bricks or paying off this fatigue. For every hour of sleep, we remove one of the bricks from our backpack. If we sleep for eight hours, we remove all our fatigue bricks and start our day refreshed and ready to go. Sounds simple, right?

However, (this is where it gets heavy) if we miss one hour of sleep, we will start our day with one fatigue brick already in our back pack. We only managed to repay seven overnight. We now have one hour of sleep debt we need to pay back.

As we continue with another 16-hr day, we now have nine bricks on our back. Another seven hours of sleep the next night will leave us with two bricks in our backpack the next morning, so we start our new day with ten bricks (and so on). Our sleep debt is now growing larger (and heavier) and getting harder to pay off.

The average adult member of society lives with sleep debt these days. It is an overlooked fact, and it’s not healthy!


Consider a child who needs 14 hours of sleep a day.

This child will receive more than one brick of fatigue in his backpack for every hour he is awake. A child is smaller and less able to carry the load. He needs to recharge more frequently, and for longer periods of time, than an adult. This is the reason why daytime naps are necessary; they help younger children manage their backpack of fatigue.

Make sure you know how much sleep is recommended for your child and then ensure he meets that need during each 24 hour period, before the fatigue sets in. If you’re unsure how much sleep your child needs, you can find the recommended number of hours by age here.

If you thought your backpack was heavy after having a few late nights, can you imagine the weight of sleep debt on your child?


In the early stages of sleep debt, you are likely to notice its effects. Most of us have personally experienced a lack of sleep and have noticed the negative effect it’s had on our energy, our mood and our ability to handle stress.

Someone who is not getting enough sleep carries a large load of mental, emotional and physical fatigue and will have problems performing every-day activities effectively.

Do you have sleep debt? If so, you could be displaying a vast range of behavioural and physiological symptoms, including (but not limited to): reduced alertness, memory lapses, a diminished ability to concentrate and multitask, irritable or aggressive behaviour, poor decision making, dark circles or bags under the eyes, lowered reaction time, hand tremors, aching muscles, increased blood pressure, and even hallucinations.

Baby brain anyone?


I have been told by a number of people I know, that they handle four hours sleep a day just fine. I use to be one of them – before I burnt out. Our bodies ARE amazingly adaptable, and your basic life skills are generally still available to you. But if you want to tap into your creativity, improve your performance (above average) or just operate at your full potential, you just won’t be able to with sleep debt.

What is significant is that our perception of the effect of sleep debt changes over time. This is where it gets interesting; as sleep debt continues, we usually do NOT notice the extent of our reduced alertness and functionality (due to our impaired judgement). Studies have shown that we believe our alertness stays the same, even though our daytime performance continues to get worse. You may not think it’s as bad as it really is!

In the longer term, sleep debt has been associated with a number of serious and potentially life-threatening conditions, including: weight gain, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, fibromyalgia, depression, bipolar disorder, impaired immune system, stroke and heart attack, amongst others. Furthermore, extreme sleep deprivation has been shown to lead to death (in rats).


To fix sleep debt you need to stop treating sleep as a luxury or an indulgence. Once you’ve recognised that adequate sleep is just as important for health as diet and exercise; set up a repayment scheme. You owe your body some rest!

Settle up short-term debt: If you’ve missed 10 hours of sleep over the course of a week, you’ll need to add three to four extra hours of sleep into your weekend, and then add an extra hour or two to each night until your debt is fully paid off.

Unfortunately it appears that sleeping in at weekends isn’t enough to cancel out the cumulative sleep debt of a bad week of sleep.

Then, address long-term debt: Plan a holiday with a light schedule and limited responsibilities. Sleep every night until you wake up naturally (no alarm clocks). If you like, take naps during the day.

This applies to the rest of the family too!

Most of all – avoid falling into a new cycle of debt: Once you’ve figured out how much sleep you and your family members need, factor this into your daily schedules. It also helps to go to bed and get up at the same time every day.


There are numerous reasons for accumulating sleep debt. Some even believe that as a parent it is a rite of passage; that may be the case to a certain extent with a newborn. But when is it just too much?

Some reasons for sleep debt are harder to change, those due to medical conditions and chronic pain for example; but if your debt is because you are treating sleep as a luxury and burning the candle at both ends, or because your children have fallen into unhealthy sleep patterns or have never learnt to self-settle to sleep – make sure you correct this!

You owe it to yourself, your children and your health. Don’t short change yourself by not getting enough sleep. NOW is the best time to make sleep a priority.

If you need help getting your children to sleep through the night to reduce YOUR family’s sleep debt, I’m available to assist. Email me (, PM me through FB, or book in a free call, to arrange your free 15 minute phone consultation. That’s the best step to help reduce your debt.

Because EVERYONE needs a good night’s sleep!