A few years back, a morning news show did a segment on sleep that I never forgot. One of the newscasters spent a night in a sleep clinic. As an experiment, he was left alone for a few minutes on a small comfy bed. When the facilitator returned, she asked the newscaster if he had been sleeping. “No!”, he stated emphatically, but in fact he had just clocked a six-minute nap. And, what’s more, it took him just four seconds to nod off! “That’s called sleep deprivation,” said the facilitator.
Now, I don’t work the same hours as early-morning newscasters but my body was just as tired. My 50-minute train commute, eight hours on the job, 50-minute return commute, collecting my child at daycare and then performing all home life responsibilities left me craving deep sleep so badly that my husband told his mother I could fall asleep on a clothesline!
My nodding off had become a family joke. I often startled myself awake with a snore when I dozed off on the homeward-bound train; I was clearly sleep-deprived. But here’s the thing: I could usually get to sleep. I just couldn’t stay asleep. Thanks to stress-induced insomnia, I often woke up in the wee hours of the night and would toss and turn only to fall asleep just 45 minutes before the alarm went off. This lack of sleep was impacting my to-do list, my memory and my enjoyment of life. At the time, I was only in my thirties.
It doesn’t really matter what kept me awake — insomnia, sleep apnea or another sleep disorder — it was the universal anxiety of a working mom that affected my mind the most. Am I doing the best for my child by putting her in after-school care? How can I have time for both my family and my boss? Am I taking good enough care of my body so I don't get sick? On it went. I knew I had to put myself into deep sleep training mode to finally get some good night sleep.
I read all the latest news on sleep and was already doing some of the things the reports recommended at bedtime: I turned off technology an hour or two before bedtime, kept the room cool and dark, drank chamomile tea, etc. And I fell off to sleep pretty quick — it was just those nighttime stirrings turning into full awakeness that kept me sluggish and off-balance the next day.
Some sleep experts recommend the get-up-and-do-something remedy when you wake up in the middle of the night. The next time I found myself wide awake, I tried it, but knew in just one night that this wouldn’t work for me. I did benefit with an extraordinarily clean house the next day, but one task led to another which led to the alarm going off upstairs while I was at the kitchen table organizing my recipe box. If I were going to fall asleep, I had to side with the people that said it’s far better not to leave your bed.
The first thing I did was move our digital clock from my nightstand to a bureau across the room. I could still see the time but it was far enough away that its taunting face couldn’t see me. Though I allowed myself a quick glance at the time when I first snapped awake, for the rest of my experiment, I never locked eyes with it until morning. Next, I bought a sleep mask and only wore it when I awakened. My hope was that this would signal to my disquieted brain that it was still night and therefore, still rest time. If I had ruminations, they had to take place behind the darkened mask.
Next, I made sure that I wore something comfortable each night that did not feel like daytime wear: no yoga pants or t-shirts. I wanted my brain to remember that I was in bed and this was different than being awake. That meant that when the witching hour of wide awake came, I was not hampered by a problem garment that twisted or had elastic band sleeves pushed up to my shoulders. More often than not, this meant a lightweight, sleeveless nightie.
The most important part of my training is that I refused to give in to the fight or flight sensation. I told myself it was good to be in bed resting, that all was well, that there is a time to sleep and a time to wake. I reminded myself that morning would come soon enough and because I slept well, I would have all the necessary energy to handle whatever came my way. The constant self-talk was like a magic pill. Before I even knew it, I was back to dreamland without resorting to housework or medication.
To sum up, here are my tips for what to do when you can't sleep:
- Move your clock to another part of the room. Ditto, cell phone. The blue light your device emits disrupts your circadian rhythm and can alter your sleep schedule.
- Wear real night clothes. Shop for your precious sleep time as if you were shopping for a special event. Touch fabrics for softness and movement. Stay away from anything frilly and choose simple nightgowns or pajamas sets with clean lines. Experiment with what styles keep you comfortable and your body temperature cool.
- Dress your bed for optimal sleep. I use a poly-filled comforter and look forward to the feel of the comforter on my skin. It's become a huge benefit to my sleep problem. Experiment to see how much weight you prefer for your covers. Keep your bed’s clothes as simple as your own night clothes. Turn your bed into a cozy nest for sleeping with pillows.
- Use a fan for white noise. Point it toward the bed but far enough away to only cause a light stir. Even just turning on the fan before bed signals to my brain that it’s time to wind down.
- Keep the room perfectly dark. Use blocking window shades and remove nightlights to promote a good sleep. If you must have a nightlight, put it in the hallway outside the bedroom. Our bodies respond to darkness with sleepiness.
- Have one small glass of water nearby. It's for quick sips of water in the middle of the night so you don't have to get up in the middle of the night. Getting up for anything, including water or a glass of warm milk, can keep you awake by elongating the time between your waking and falling back to sleep.
- Self-talk. I can't stress how important this is! Soothe yourself with the words you might use to help your child sleep. Remind yourself that you work hard and deserve a good night’s rest. Soon you will find that you’ve talked yourself right back to sleep — all without medication.
Donna is a freelance writer with a particular interest in the issues, struggles, loves, and dreams of women. She writes all about it on her blog, alovelyinconsequence.blogspot.com.