There’s a reason why Shakespeare had Macbeth freak out at the thought of sleeping no more. Sleep deprivation, after all, is a form of torture. And it’s one I can relate to all too well- you too, I’m guessing, or you wouldn’t be here.
Throughout my life, I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with sleep. As a teenager, it wasn’t unusual to be up until dawn playing cards with the boys next door, or pulling an all-nighter to do an assignment. Even the broken nights that came with babies didn’t cripple me. I was tired and exhausted, but I functioned.
Then things changed. I got cancer. Then my drinking got out of control. And even when I stopped the booze, my husband didn’t. I’ll fast forward you through four years of lying awake at nights, waiting for him to come home, the clock passing 3.00, 4.00, 5.00 am. Throughout this time, I suffered from insomnia (big surprise). I took sleeping pills, and though they kind of worked, I’d get only three to four hours before I woke up with a bang.
I got rid of the husband, but not the sleeping pill dependence, which continued for another two years. And then something magical happened. I met my now husband, and started to want to be a better person, someone free from the crutches of my past.
So I weaned myself off the pills. It was slow and painful, but I made it. And just when I was getting comfortable, I passed my 40th birthday and started to get tired. Tired enough that hitting the midnight oil was no longer an option. In fact, too many late nights unleashed my special brand of hell on my nearest and dearest. It seemed that not only the quality but also the quantity of my sleep now had to be nurtured.
These experiences have made me somewhat of an untrained expert in the art of sleep. Of interest, the biggest (unscientific) conclusion I can draw is that 95% of good sleep comes from developing good habits and following firm routines. Therefore, if you struggle with sleep, try some of the ideas below for building such habits and see if they help you in any way.
- Experiment with your optimum hours of sleep. I used to follow the old adage of 6-8 hours and think that if I went to bed at a time that enabled me to fall asleep within this range, I was doing okay. However, after reading some more about sleep cycles, I decide to experiment. Five 90 minute sleep cycles mean 7.5 hours of sleep. This sounded like a good amount, so my husband and I tried going to bed at the right time to ensure that lights were out and our eyes were closing at 10.30 (we wake up at 6.00 am). From the first night, I knew we were on to a winner. One of the ways I know is that we usually wake up a few minutes before the alarm goes off. Now, whilst the 90 minutes per sleep cycle is not a hard and fast rule, it does provide you with a framework to experiment with. Try a few different times for a few nights at a time until you find the magical number that works for you. (If you want to know some of the science behind sleep cycles read this article from Harvard Medical School).
- Once you have this number, commit to it. I don’t know about you, but around 9.00pm I often get a second wind. I think it’s because this time of night is when I’m doing things that I enjoy for myself and no-one else. It’s also when the husband puts the cricket on, so he too is in his happy place. It’s super hard to stop this pleasure to go to bed, especially after a long day. If you find yourself in this situation, try setting an alarm on your phone so you can get yourself ready for bed with 30 minutes to spare before lights out. When the alarm goes off, that’s it. Time to go.
- However, that’s the last time you’ll see or hear from your phone. Just this year we’ ve made the step of not allowing phones in the bedroom and I can’t believe what a difference it has made. It wasn’t unusual for us to get into bed and meaninglessly scroll through Facebook or – what is worse- check emails from work as we were meant to be winding down. As well as the content being potentially stressful, there’s a tonne of evidence out there to show the damage the blue light emitted from our devices inflicts on our sleep cycles (again, if you’re interested this article discusses it in a non-academic way). Do yourself a favour and go phone free in the bedroom. I don’t think you’ll look back.
- Temperature has a huge impact on your sleep. When the weather is hot, make your room as cool as possible. The optimum temperature for sleep is between 15 and 19.5 degrees Celsius or 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have air-conditioning, open a window, use a fan, or try having a cooler shower than normal and going to sleep with wet hair. It doesn’t cause a cold like we were led to believe as children!
- When you go into your room, turn off the main lights and use either a bedside lamp, or if you have wall lights or pendants, ensure you have a low wattage bulb. Your room should feel cosy and cave-like.
- Read every night. I am a life-long reader and don’t buy this ‘bedrooms should only be for sex and sleep.’ Reading in bed is one of life’s great pleasures. Funnily enough, since we made the commitment to keep the phones out of the bedroom, I look forward to my evening read even more. There is also something quite delicious about the heavy feeling your eyes get, and the way in which they close and you struggle through that last page before admitting defeat. If your husband is not a reader, help him find something you think he might like. Lee Child would be my go-to author. I’ve converted my husband from a sports-bio only type to a devourer of fiction, so I know it can be done!
- Try something like the Shakti mat. This was another purchase I made this year and it is awesome. It’s a small foam mat with a tonne of plastic spikes on it. It sounds painful, and it is when you first lie down, but then you get this pleasant tingling and warmth and it is so relaxing. People say they read and so on when using it, but I find I like to put the book down and just concentrate on my breathing. 10-15 minutes on this is enough to send me to slumber. (I bought mine from Shakti Mat New Zealand, but for those of you in the USA ,this seems to be the most highly rated similar product on Amazon: Nayoya Back and Neck Pain Relief – Acupressure Mat and Pillow Set – Relieves Stress, Back, Neck, and Sciatic Pain – Comes with a Vinyl Carry Bag for Storage and Travel – As Seen in USA Today. This is an affiliate link- I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking through it. Read my disclosure policy for more info. ).
- Get an old-fashioned alarm clock with no phosphorescent or luminous hands. It doesn’t do you any favours to know what time it is when you wake up in the middle of the night, especially if it takes you a while to get back to sleep. The only downside I have found with ours is that the alarm works on a 12-hour clock, so I have to remember to turn it on at night. In addition, such a clock does not come with a snooze button and that has also had a positive effect on our getting up and getting on with the day.
- Go to bed at the same time as your partner (if you have one). My husband and I always go to bed at the same time. It has huge advantages, not the least that you actually get into bed, talk, do whatever else that comes to mind, and turn off the light together. There is nothing worse than just getting off to sleep when your husband comes into the room and wakes you up.
- Finally, know that not sleeping is not the worst thing in the world. This is how I actually got off the sleeping pills. I told myself that lying there, awake, was okay. I could touch my husband and know he was there next to me. I could listen to his breathing and be glad that I was there with him. Even if I didn’t sleep, I would get rest, and rest would give me some benefit. I know people disagree with lying in bed awake, but it worked for me much better than getting up.
Sleep is so important in the lives of busy women. We know now that you cannot make up a weeknight sleep deficit by a weekend sleep in. Therefore, you owe it to yourself and your family to make it a priority in your life – not something you short-change in order to “get more done.” If you have trouble with sleeping, just start with one of the ideas here, and see how it goes. Even if you don’t and there’s something you’ve never done, try it, and see if it improves your nights.
But I will say, if you have a husband like my bad one, cut your losses. Life is too short to lose both literal and figurative sleep on people with no regard for your well-being!