Antimicrobial resistance is getting a lot of attention these days. Some legislators are so concerned about this public health threat and it’s purported ties to animal agriculture that the Preservation of Antimicrobials for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) was recently introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate. But I’m more concerned about a different type of resistance that’s developing – auditory alarm resistance. 

Auditory alarm resistance (AAR), more commonly known as “sleeping through one’s alarm”, is becoming a growing problem on dairy farms. For a long time, I thought the issue was isolated to our farm, but when the topic came up at a recent gathering of young farmers it became clear that others are struggling with AAR as well.

When AAR first became an issue on our farm, I attributed it to simple hearing loss. Glen has partial hearing loss in one ear and he normally sleeps on his good ear. Since the alarm clock is on his side of the bed, that meant it took my elbow hitting his ribs to get him to hit the snooze button (more about that later). 

But, it soon became clear that Glen’s AAR wasn’t a matter of hearing loss. He might be able to sleep through the alarm, but he’ll awaken immediately (long before I do) to the sound of Dan’s little feet padding across the carpet in the hallway or his little whisper at the edge of our bed, “Daddy, I need some water.”

Regardless of how deeply he’s slumbering, he can also hear and process, “Glen, we’re late!” (A phenomenon that began occurring more and more often after Monika was born and I started sleeping through the alarm as well.)

With that in mind, I set out a couple years ago to find an alarm clock that had a recorded message option. Something like the recorded greeting on the answering machine. Something I could program to announce, “Glen, wake up!” in my voice (or maybe his mother’s).

Well, they don’t make such alarm clocks. What I did find was some information about AAR. According to Wikipedia, “sleepers can become accustomed to the sound of their alarm clock if it has been used for a period of time, making it less effective.”

Apparently, hitting the snooze button only accelerates the process: the more times you hear that stinkin’ alarm each morning, the more resistant you become to waking. It’s like overusing antibiotics.

That’s why enterprising alarm clock manufacturers have invented such things as dawn simulators and progressive alarms. Since I couldn’t find a talking alarm, we tried a couple of these methods. We plugged a lamp into a timer and set it to turn on a half-hour before the alarm. It didn’t help.

I’ve recently resorted to using my cell phone for an alarm clock, which allows me to switch the ring tones when they start to lose their effectiveness. That doesn’t always work either.

One of the young farmers we were talking with even purchased an alarm kit designed for hearing impaired people. The kit came with a flashing light and a vibrating mat for under his pillow. He slept right through the whole production.

Now, I’ve come to believe that AAR is more a result of sleep deprivation, than it is matter of tuning out sounds. Somewhere in our brains, the hormones that keep track of our sleep quotient override the nerves in charge of processing the alarm signals and, thus, we don’t even sense the alarm. When we get enough sleep, we hear the alarm. When we don’t, we sleep right through. It seems pretty simple.

But there’s another factor involved – the “we-can’t-be-late” fear factor. I know it exists, because we always manage to hear the alarm when there’s something big going on, like chopping corn or an important meeting. When the coming event has been flagged in our subconscious minds, the “we-can’t-be-late” response center has power over even the sleep hormones. So it doesn’t matter if we’ve slept three hours or six hours, we’ll bolt out of bed at the first sound of the alarm.

Maybe this condition should be called Selective Auditory Alarm Resistance. And maybe we should try to get more sleep. But that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. An experienced farmer we know once told a couple of us young farmers that, “As long as you have cows, you’ll never get enough sleep.” I would add a clause to that statement which includes “and children” because it’s a toss up between our children and our cows as to who we lose more sleep over.

In the meantime, I’m trying to learn more about the condition. Is auditory alarm resistance a problem for you or someone you know? What methods have you tried for waking up on time? Send me your suggestions; my address is below. Your responses will remain anonymous.

Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 70 cows near Melrose, Minn. They have two children – Dan, 3, and Monika, 1. When she’s not parenting or farming, she’s writing for the Dairy Star. Sadie can be reached at gsfrericks@meltel.net.