Sleep is for the birds

           I wanted to title this “Mom’s a bird brain,” but I didn’t want to think I was poking fun at myself or any other mothers. The truth is, as I recently learned, having a bird brain when it comes to sleep is pretty great. And no, a little bird didn’t tell me this.
            Some birds travel long distances on their migration routes, and others just fly around and around and around and never really touch down. Scientists wondered how an animal could be active so long without getting much rest. (I’m assuming these scientists never really had multiple toddlers at the same time.) To make a long and interesting story short, they found that birds actually sleep mid-flight, in very short bursts, and here’s my favorite part, by only shutting down half of their brain at a time.
            The recent study, which comes out of the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology in Germany studied the frigatebird in the Galapagos Islands, which doesn’t sound like a bad place to set up a science experiment if you ask me. They caught these birds that are well known for never stopping, and placed teeny tiny EEG’s in their skulls to monitor brain activity. The results showed that the birds sleep for only 10 seconds at a time for a totally of 45 minutes a day. All of this happens while in flight.
            The birds aren’t “sleep-flying,” either. By only sleeping with half of their brain, they maintain some form of vigilance to make sure they don’t crash into each other or fall in the ocean, because they can’t swim.
            I’ve never seen one of these birds, but I sure do feel like one.
            Parenting, or at least good parenting, never stops. Checking homework, making food, driving to here and there, worrying about what they are doing, making sure everyone is safe and happy and healthy. I’m not flying, but I sure feel like life never really stops and like the frigatebird, I have mastered the art of the power nap. (I prefer 12 minutes instead of 10 seconds.)
Not only that, but my brain literally never stops thinking about what I need to be, or should be, doing. I’m sure I’m not the only mother who wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about her kids or can sleep through a storm but hears a baby’s cough and springs out of bed like it’s on fire.
Like some of these sleeping birds, there is another study that suggests that humans have a little of this half-sleep brain, too, that we don't fully shut down so that we can be on guard and don’t sleep so well when we are in a strange place like hotel or listening for something. I’ll project that idea onto myself and why I haven’t gotten a decent night of sleep in over fifteen years, bird brain that I am.

Originally written 8.28.16


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