We all know that “life goes better with sleep”, but it can be challenging to get in the sleep that our bodies really need. Parents juggle child care, work and home demands and busy schedules along with other unexpected challenges that land on the doorstep. Add in a child who is up several times in the night, and you’ve got a recipe for relentless fatigue!
The good news is that you can begin to fill your “sleep tank” with a few simple steps. Start small, with one or two changes that you know you can manage. Once you’ve worked those changes into your routine, add another. These 10 sleep hygiene tips have been proven to make a difference in quality and length of sleep. No matter what your sleep challenges are (and we all struggle with sleep at some point) you can make a difference and exercise some control over your body’s sleep pattern.
Set up a sleep-friendly space
You may be familiar with the adage: keep your bed reserved for sleep and sex. That’s because people naturally form associations between activities. For example, if you are in the habit of working on your laptop in bed, then your brain may come to associate work worries with that space and have a hard time switching off when it’s time to go to sleep.
Keep your sleep space cool – somewhere between 16 – 20 °C works for most people. Body temperature naturally drops as we move into sleep, so having a cool sleep space helps us make that shift. If your partner likes to sleep warmer (or cooler) than you do, then consider having separate weights of sleep quilts/ duvets or an electric blanket with dual controls.
Block out light. Darkness sends a signal to our brains to produce melatonin, an important sleep- inducing hormone. Use blackout curtains or shades, or wear a sleep mask. Scientists have discovered that the “blue” portion of the light spectrum interferes with sleep. Some people find it helpful to dim the lights in the house in the evening, wear blue-light blocking glasses or install amber lightbulbs in the bedroom to help the transition into sleep. If you need to be on your computer or phone in the evening, install a blue light filter such as f.lux.
Deal with noise, especially if you tend to be a lighter sleeper. Use a white noise machine that masks breakthrough sounds (run it between 50 – 60 dB) or wear earplugs. Turn down the baby monitor – your baby will let you know when she needs you. Having a bit of a delay in response can be a good thing, too and allows her to try settling herself on her own for a few minutes before you intervene.
Turn your phone down or off, or better yet, charge it outside the bedroom for the night. Studies have shown that keeping a smart phone in the bedroom makes for disrupted sleep. And definitely keep your phone away from bedding when it is being charged to avoid triggering a fire.
If you have a lighted clock or video monitor, turn it to face away from you for 2 reasons: you don’t need the additional light or stress of watching the time and what your baby is doing during sleep.
Keep your pets out of the bedroom or train them to sleep next to the bed. Their movements during the night can rouse you enough to interfere with the deep sleep your body needs.
Change the mattress if it is more than 10 years old. Give a new mattress a trial run. Many stores will allow customers to exchange their mattress within 30 days of purchase if it is not comfortable. Change your pillow yearly as it tends to lose its shape, retain moisture and build up allergens.
What goes in… affects sleep
Caffeine is a stimulant (which can help you wake up and get going in the morning) and is found in coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate, colas and even some medications. Try to avoided caffeinated food and drinks 4 – 6 hours before bedtime. Cigarettes are also stimulating. If you smoke, have that last cigarette a couple of hours before lights out.
Alcohol helps some people get sleepy, but it disrupts the quality of sleep through the night – so avoid “nightcaps” and take that last drink at least 2 hours before bed.
Eating a heavy or spicy meal later in the evening can set you up for a restless night. If you need a bedtime snack, keep it light: lower fat cheese and crackers, a piece of fruit, toast with peanut butter or a small bowl of low-sugar cereal with milk can all work well.
Stay hydrated with water through the day, and avoid drinking a lot of fluids close to bedtime. You will likely have to get up to visit the bathroom in the night if you do!
Keep sleep on schedule
Most people have body clocks that like routine. Aim for a consistent bedtime and wake up time. Get up at the same time each morning, even if you have had a rougher night – morning light helps reset the body clock and you will have more “push” into sleep the next night. Stay with your regular time on weekends (or within one hour of when you usually get up or go to bed) to avoid that Monday morning “jetlag” experience when you go back to your weekday schedule.
Aim for 7 – 9 hours of sleep each night. If you are dragging yourself out of bed each morning, you are likely not getting enough zzz’s! Most people know how much sleep their body needs based on how long they sleep when on a lazy vacation.
Speaking of the body clock: exposure to natural daylight in the morning or early afternoon helps keep awake/sleep rhythms on track. If you live in a northern climate with limited daylight in the winter (like I do), use of a SAD light at a desk or the kitchen table can be a good alternative.
Work in some exercise
Being physically active earlier in the day (especially in the afternoon or early evening) can help you sleep more soundly at night. It doesn’t matter if you choose to participate in organized or solo sports, walk the dog, take the stairs at work or shovel the walks – just get moving. Physical activity will also help your brain stay alert – which is also why it’s good idea to finish up at least 2 hours before you hit the hay.
Have a wind-down routine
We often recommend having a predictable bedtime routine for our babies and toddlers as it helps them make the transition into sleep. The same holds true for us. It might be as simple as taking a shower, watching a bit of TV or reading, bathroom duties and then settling into bed.
Deal with worries
Good advice from Anxiety Canada: “Leave your worries about work, school, health, relationships, etc. out of the bedroom. Try scheduling a ‘worry time’ earlier in the evening to deal with your worries. If you wake up in the middle of the night worrying, try writing down your worries and tell yourself that you will address them in the morning. Worrying about not sleeping [also] doesn’t help. Let go of your belief that you have to get eight hours of sleep or you can’t function. Stop looking at the clock and stop trying to make yourself fall asleep. It will happen when it happens.”
Go to bed when you’re tired
If you have ever tried going to bed extra-early to prepare for an early morning flight, you know how hard it is to fall asleep when you’re not sleepy. We actually need to build up enough sleep “pressure” through the day to push our brains into sleep. If you go to bed and toss and turn for 20 minutes, just get up and do a quiet activity. Wait until you start to feel drowsy and try again.
If you wake and can’t get back to sleep…
Perhaps you have no difficulties falling asleep, but have a hard time getting back to sleep after you have settled the baby, made a trip to the bathroom or been woken by an early morning garbage truck. You
know you are really in trouble when your mind starts mulling over plans for the day or rehashing a problem with a co-worker. Here are some coping tips:
- Stop worrying about the shortness of the night and how tired you will be the next day. We can all survive a short night’s sleep. Give yourself permission to just relax and not go to sleep.
- Get up and do something quiet: browse a magazine, read a book, listen to some music. Make yourself comfortable on the couch or recliner.
- Have a small snack. My mother swore by a glass of warmed milk (which contains a precursor to melatonin, by the way).
- Wait until you are drowsy before heading back to bed, or …
- Try a different sleep location (on the couch or spare bed).
- Get through the next day with morning caffeine and physical activity, and sneak in a short afternoon nap if you can. Keep it to 30 minutes or less (you are less likely to move into deep sleep and then have trouble waking up) and end it before 3:00 pm.
- Plan to get to bed a bit earlier the next night – you should have more “push” into sleep by then!
Contact your doctor
Making small changes and working towards good sleep habits should result in longer and more restorative sleep. However, there are times when good sleep hygiene is just not enough.
Medical concerns such as ongoing anxiety, depression or chronic pain have a direct impact on sleep and need prompt attention. If left unattended you may experience a cycle of worsening clinical symptoms and an even poorer quality of sleep.
Speak to your doctor if you continue to have difficulties getting to sleep, getting back to sleep in the night or getting through the day without feeling exhausted. Keep a sleep diary for a couple of weeks to chart your sleep patterns and the strategies you are trying. You may require further testing to rule out sleep disorders such as Sleep Disordered Breathing, Restless Legs Syndrome or Narcolepsy.
Written By the Sleephaven Team:
Sleephaven has you covered!
A good night’s sleep is often within reach with a few simple changes. And if your little (non) sleeper is part of your sleep problem, we’d be happy to help! We’ve supported hundreds of parents as their children master going to sleep and back to sleep on their own. It’s true: if baby sleeps, everyone sleeps better!