What is revenge bedtime procrastination and why is it so alluring to parents?
By Sharon Brandwein
When I was a new mom, people always said, “sleep when the baby sleeps,” but I couldn’t. Instead of sleeping when my 3-month-old slept, I stayed awake at night reading books, sometimes until the crack of dawn. One time, I even stayed up until 4 a.m., when I was reading a particularly good book. When my sister asked why I told her I felt like I needed to be up and awake when my daughter wasn’t.
It was 2007, iPhones had just hit the market, the internet was still relatively young, and information didn’t exist as it does now. But times have certainly changed. Fast-forward 14 years, and I have come to know that what I was experiencing actually has a name—revenge bedtime procrastination. And while everyone does it, revenge bedtime procrastination can be particularly attractive to new parents who often have little to no leisure time for themselves save for the precious night hours.
What is revenge bedtime procrastination?
The term bedtime procrastination was first coined in 2014 by Dr. Floor Kroese, a behavioral scientist from Utrecht University. Dr. Kroese and her team defined bedtime procrastination as “failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so.”
In layman’s terms, bedtime procrastination means staying up long after you should be asleep to engage in activities you couldn’t partake in during your waking hours. In 2022 this frequently looks like binge-watching, endlessly scrolling through TikTok, online shopping, or any other activity that taps into your brain’s reward center for a quick dopamine hit.
Bedtime procrastination often goes hand-in-hand with high-stress jobs, family situations, and lifestyles. It’s a common occurrence when people feel like they don’t have control over their daytime activities. Ultimately, people put off sleep, sometimes for hours on end, to regain control of an otherwise chaotic life.
The word “revenge” was later added to this phenomenon courtesy of a tweet by journalist Daphne K. Lee. In this now-viral tweet, Lee alluded to “retaliatory staying up late,” a common practice in China. Typically, people work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, leaving them virtually no personal time. In turn, they “retaliate” by staying up later then they should in order to regain a sense of freedom.
Why do so many people delay sleep?
Certified Child Sleep Consultant and founder of Bella Luna Family, Christine Brown, says that revenge bedtime procrastination is merely the result of living in a world with mixed-up priorities. Hustle culture is often encouraged and praised while downtime, leisure time, and making room for doing the things we love are frowned upon.
At the end of the day (literally and figuratively), Brown says, “Many people feel that if they aren’t busy, then they are lazy. [Ultimately], everyone eventually crashes, and they turn to the TV, a book, or a hobby instead of sleep [to regain some sense of autonomy].”
She goes on to say, “It is easy to get sucked into Netflix or the latest psychological thriller, saying just one more episode, and then I’ll go to bed. The next thing they know, it’s way past their bedtime, and they wake up exhausted the next morning.”
Causes of revenge bedtime procrastination
Revenge bedtime procrastination can result from a variety of factors, including poor work-life balance, a history of impulsivity, and burnout. Here’s a closer look.
1. Poor work-life balance
Revenge bedtime procrastination is especially an issue for people in jobs that are high-stress and high responsibility. When there’s no line in the sand between their work life and home life, that lack of balance can easily drive someone to stay up later than they should to take back their personal time and relieve stress.
Using these parameters, it’s easy to see how working parents can easily fall into the revenge bedtime procrastination trap. Their days are spent handling emails, deadlines, and everything else that work requires. When quitting time comes, their focus shifts squarely to parenting and childcare. Understandably, parents must steal time wherever they can. Ultimately, ‘me time” can often (and only) be found undercover of the night.
2. Lack of structure
It’s worth noting here that when a new baby arrives, parents understandably struggle with structure. Newborns and babies are on their own schedule, and when that happens, new moms just have to go with it. Understandably, this can lead to mom asserting some control over the only thing she can control—her sleep schedule.
Those who struggle with burnout are more likely to engage in bedtime procrastination too. And while it may be tempting to only associate burnout with high-stress jobs, it’s worth noting again that it’s also applicable to new parents. In fact, research has shown that infant sleep patterns can lead to parental burnout and maternal depression.
Your existing chronotype (or natural inclinations toward sleep) is another factor that can impact your propensity toward revenge sleep procrastination. As you might have guessed, people who are already night owls have a higher tendency to delay sleep for another episode or some late-night doomscrolling.
Why do so many moms, in particular, engage in revenge bedtime procrastination?
Because new mothers typically have little to no structure in their day, poor work-life balance (so to speak), and often suffer from burnout, revenge bedtime procrastination can be pretty alluring.
“Moms tend to be the primary caretakers and nurturers,” says Brown. “This leads to mom [being the] parental preference a lot of the time.” Pair that with the fact that children often rely heavily on their mothers for everything, and you have the perfect recipe for revenge bedtime procrastination.
Moreover, “Many moms work outside the home, so from the time they open their eyes (oftentimes very early in the morning) to the time their kiddos are in bed, they are on the go, taking care of others’ wants and needs,” Brown says. “So, once their little ones are finally in bed for the night, those night hours are likely the first moment they have to themselves. That time is so sacred and important for mental health that moms often prioritize that free time more than they prioritize sleep.”
The consequences of revenge bedtime procrastination
Brown goes on to caution that revenge bedtime procrastination can be a double-edged sword. She says, “Unfortunately, sleep is also important for mental health, so forgoing sleep for alone time can negate the positive effects of that downtime.”
Over the long-term, revenge bedtime procrastination can lead to sleep deprivation. Remember that while you sleep, your body is hard at work recharging, repairing, and engaging in biological processes to keep you healthy and functioning at peak performance. Consistently cutting into the time your body needs to do these things can (and will) take its toll on you both mentally and physically.
Mentally, sleep deprivation can lead to impaired memory and decision-making, daytime sleepiness, irritability, and even depression and anxiety. Physically, long-term sleep deprivation can lead to cardiovascular problems, type 2 diabetes, and a higher risk for stroke.
How are parents supposed to get “me” time without sacrificing sleep?
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child”—this is where you need your “village.”
“If you have a partner,” Brown advises, “take turns giving each other downtime so you can both keep your cups full without sacrificing sleep.” If you don’t have a partner, then lean into your larger “village” of friends and family. “Ask for family help, hire a babysitter or a mother’s helper,” Brown says. “[This is a good way to get] a break during the day, so you don’t feel so compelled to stay up late.”
How to break the revenge bedtime procrastination habit?
If you feel like you are caught on the hamster wheel of revenge bedtime procrastination, you might find that simple changes to your sleep hygiene can make a huge difference.
1. Follow good sleep hygiene
“A bedtime routine is an awesome way to take care of yourself and have ‘me time’ while still propelling you toward your bed,” Brown says.
And once you establish a bedtime routine, consistency is crucial. Eventually, your body and mind will begin associating these actions or rituals with bedtime making it easier for you to fall asleep with minimal tossing and turning.
2. Be intentional about making space for leisure activities
To keep revenge bedtime procrastination in check, be intentional about making space for the things that make your heart sing and help you protect your mental health. You certainly need to be there for your family, but in order to do so, you have to put your oxygen mask on first.
Browns says, “if you consciously decide that you are going to prioritize sleep, that will go a long way towards convincing yourself to actually go to bed before hitting the play button on the next episode.”
And if you don’t think you can trust yourself to resist, “set a bedtime alarm for yourself to remind you that it is time for you to head to bed. You can even use the downtime feature on your phone to shut off all apps and encourage you to stop the scroll.”
Not only can exercise help you fall asleep faster and improve your sleep quality, but it could be a great way to give yourself some me-time.
If you’ve been thinking about it, keep in mind that exercise doesn’t have to look like two hours at the gym on your own. If you don’t have childcare to make that happen, you can always put the baby in the stroller, go for a walk, and essentially kill two birds with one stone. You’ll be getting out for some fresh air while doing something for yourself and your baby.
4. Get organized
By carving out time during the day to complete chores and even indulge in your favorite leisure activity, you’ll be more likely to resist the urge to procrastinate come bedtime.
In addition to planning for the fun stuff, be sure to take a look at what you’ve got going on at work. Get your calendar straight, create your to-do list, and get organized there as well so you’re not staying up to do those things (or laying awake thinking about them) when you should be sleeping and recharging for the next day.
5. Learn to let go
One of the best things you can do for yourself as you navigate your parenting journey is learning to let go. It’s important to understand that sometimes things are just out of our control, and the more we fight it, the harder it feels. This is particularly true when there’s a newborn in the house. Your baby can and will take up almost every moment of your waking hours.
But your job as a mom is to take care of your baby and yourself—the laundry and the dishes can wait.
- Bedtime procrastination. Frontiers In Psychology. 2014. Bedtime procrastination: introducing a new area of procrastination.
- Infant sleep patterns can lead to parental burnout and maternal depression. Pub Med. 2001. Infant sleep problems and postnatal depression: a community-based study.
- Sleep deprivation can lead to impaired memory and decision-making. NIH. 2007. Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance.
- Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to cardiovascular problems and type 2 diabetes. NIH. 2010. Sleep Duration as a Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease- a Review of the Recent Literature.