When I was little my dad used to say he could drive a freight train through my bedroom and I wouldn’t move a muscle. I was regularly the last one to wake at sleepovers as a teenager and I once answered the phone and held a conversation while remaining asleep as a young adult. To put it simply, I was a solid sleeper.
Yet starting around a year ago, I became Sleepless in Seattle, and not in a lovelorn Meg Ryan kind of way. I mean the wake-up-in-the-wee-hours-need-a-caffeine-IV-to-get-through-the-day kind of sleepless. I mostly blame my children.
The sleep deprivation began over a decade ago, when the first bundle of joy kept me up all night as she took her sweet time deciding when to arrive. After that, it was a blur of nighttime feedings, co-sleeping, teething, night terrors and croup. Just as I was staggering out from the fog, her brother arrived, and then her other brother. The youngest is now six. He’s well past the night feedings, but in some twisted joke from the universe, he’s the family member who requires the least amount of shut-eye — he’s up late, up early and occasionally up in between.
Thus, just as I finally entered the parenting stage when I should be able to get some rest, many nights found me lying awake. Eyes determinedly screwed shut, convincing myself not to look at the reviled clock, I’d attempt to think of emptiness. Have you ever tried it? It’s really hard to think of nothing. Occasionally I’d hover at the portal to the Land of Nod…and then a car door would slam, my husband would roll over or a book would fall off my son’s bunk and my eyes would fly open, another night passed in frustrated futility.
As it turns out, once a sleep pattern has been interrupted, a new sleep habit must be created, which is harder than it sounds — I know, because I’ve spent the past year researching and trying out various methods. In the interest of helping my fellow sleep- (and time-) deprived parents, I’ve outlined the techniques I tried below along with notes on what proved most successful for me. Consider it a Sleep 101 crib sheet.
Establish a routine Similar to sleep training an infant, it’s important to have definitive steps for going to bed, because these help your body recognize that it’s time for sleep. The trick is to stick with the routine — for weeks.
Creating these steps was easy for me. Repeating them night after night with small kids in the mix is hard, but worth the effort. Now, when I begin my bedtime routine, my body responds by feeling tired.
Brain dump We all keep a mental to-do list and those pesky items can often sneak into your brain in the middle of the night. Jot down that list before bed. It doesn’t even have to be legible, it just has to be committed to paper so your brain can relinquish control. Think of that paper as your own personal Pensieve, à la Harry Potter.
I’ve had mixed results with this. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it just brings an item into more predominant focus. Nonetheless, I still keep the pad and pen by my bed.
Pad your bedtime and unplug Plan to be in bed a half hour earlier than usual. This will give you time to read a book or listen to music or a relaxation podcast before turning out the lights. Screens of any kind — TV, phone, computer — produce blue light, which decreases the production of melatonin, so turn the screens off at least an hour, preferably two hours, before bed.
Yep, picking up my Kindle and putting down my phone has definitely helped, but it was and remains hard to do. I had no idea how addicted I was to technology, but that’s a topic for a different article. Surprisingly, limiting my evening screen time is easier than controlling my own bedtime, which happens to be dictated by the bedtimes of my three munchkins. So, this item remains on my list, but when it inevitably doesn’t happen, I give myself a pass.
Healthy habits Sadly, alcohol and caffeine are not your friends when it comes to sleep. But wine, you whine, actually puts you to sleep! Yes, this is true, but alcohol doesn’t allow your body to enter the deeper level of sleep it needs, and can cause you to wake earlier than normal. Ditto for caffeine. Keep your coffee and chocolate intake to the mornings or early afternoons and no late-night drinking, at least for a while.
I’ve never been an afternoon coffee drinker and moving my chocolate habit to midday was simple (that change almost certainly has made me a happier person). But I wasn’t about to adopt the two-martini lunch nor was I ready to go entirely dry. The compromise: alcohol imbibing remains in the evening, but I keep it to weekends and try to drink lots of water with the wine.
Limit your light Lower the lamp for your nighttime reading and consider blackout shades on your windows or utilizing a sleep mask. A mask will prevent you from peeking at the clock and can be a constant when you travel.
This has been huge for me. I replaced my bedside bulb with one of a lower wattage and when I wake in the wee hours, I don a sleep mask. Something about the gentle pressure combined with total darkness soothes me back to sleep almost every time.
Turn the roar into a rumble My house is on a bus line, close to two drawbridges and surrounded by several construction sites. I was initially afraid I wouldn’t hear the little ones if I used earplugs. Turns out earplugs muffle, but don’t deafen, and are another helpful constant when traveling.
I recommend buying a couple different brands and trying them out. I find that just one, in whichever ear is not buried in the pillow, helps lull me into believing that the city is still asleep, so I should be too.
Exercise regularly But do it earlier in the day. Exercising raises your temperature and it takes several hours for the body to cool down enough for sleep.
This has proved true: Any night I exercise after 8 p.m., I can’t sleep until after 11 p.m. I moved my workouts to the morning, which gives me more time to play with the kids at night, as well as the space for my own bedtime routine.
Pose for sleep Find a comfortable sleep position and start in it every night. If you wake in the middle of the night, and your brain switches on, try diaphragmatic breathing: Lie flat on your back, placing one hand on your heart and the other on your abdomen. Take a slow breath in through your nose, allowing it to fill and lift your stomach, hold for a few seconds and release it slowly through your mouth. Wait a moment, then repeat six to eight times.
I’ve discovered that my left side is my go-to sleep side and I find myself turning to it every night. Creating that habit has been very successful, as has the diaphragmatic breathing, which is calming both physically and mentally, and even if sleep doesn’t ensue, it allows the body to rest.
Know that it’s going to take work to relearn how to sleep. Try one or more of these suggestions, tailor them to your routine, then give yourself a break. You might not get a consecutive, magical eight hours the first night or the first week but eventually your quality (and quantity) of sleep should improve. Happily, I’ve retired my caffeine IV and, while I'm still a work in progress, I occasionally wake up after a solid night to wonder if I missed that freight train rumbling through the room. For further sleep suggestions or tips on when to get additional sleep help, take a look at www.sleepfoundation.org
Erika Lee Bigelow is a writer, photographer and mom of three in Seattle who wishes you sweet dreams.