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Pining for z's; For half the country, too little sleep is a way of life. It shows.
Sleep can be maddeningly elusive.

Date published: 3/12/2006

By JANET MARSHALL

My 1-year-old is a fitful sleeper. So I am, too. I know between 11 and midnight, I'll be up rubbing her back and settling her down. I know we'll do it again around 3 a.m. And I know by 5:30, she'll be up, asking for milk and pointing toward the stairs.

I'll try not to stumble as I carry her down.

On really bad nights, my 3-year-old will wake up, too. "Mom!" I'll hear her shout from her bedroom. And I'll rush over, because she's just stopped wearing Pull-Ups at night, and I might have to change the sheets.

A good night's sleep is discouragingly elusive--for me and millions of other Americans.

"I don't think I've ever had a full night's sleep," said Cathy Loving of Spotsylvania County, a mother of triplets.

A quarter of adults say they get a good night's sleep just two or three nights a month, the National Sleep Foundation reports. Another quarter do two or three times a week.

Sleepy people can be cranky and forgetful. Worse, they can be dangerous.

Two weeks ago, a Fairfax County jury awarded a dead teenager's family $8 million, the Washington Post reported. The boy died when a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and slammed into the boy's car, never braking.

Lack of sleep plays out in less dramatic ways every day. A knife slips in the kitchen and slices a finger. A teacher forgets a student's name. A paper carrier misses a house.

Inattention may get the blame, but fatigue is often the culprit, said Richard Schwab, co-director of the sleep center at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.

Schwab said "fall-asleep" accidents, such as fatal car wrecks, get our attention. But awake accidents, like mishandling a mug, are more frequent.

I spilled coffee last week. And now, after talking to Schwab, I see it for what it was: the classic fusion of fatigue and my attempt to beat it.

"We always talk about Starbucks being the biggest pharmaceutical chain in the country," Schwab said.

He wishes it weren't so. Too much caffeine can make people anxious. And it's simply no replacement for sleep.

"It makes much more sense to get more sleep so you don't need coffee," Schwab said.

But that's easier said than done.


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