My mother slept between 2 and 4 hours a night for a little over half her life. It started around the time she gave birth and lasted until she passed away. I admired the fact that she lived her life fully in spite of it. She worked, mommed, wifed, wrote essays, plays and mysteries, all on an average of 3 hours of sleep a night. She tried sleeping pills, but they left her groggy and unable to drive safely or think clearly. Medical advice at that time had only 2 things to offer: drinking hot milk and honey or taking sleeping pills. That was well before the ideas of lifestyle and lifestyle changes arrived on the scene. Happily, we know more now, and what we don’t know, we can often find out from people who do.
I slept well as a kid. I could fall asleep anywhere and stay asleep. I became an occasional, voluntary insomniac in college so that I could stay up all night to finish English lit papers, study for Gothic architecture exams, ruin my hearing at Jefferson Airplane concerts, or talk about bell bottoms and boys with girlfriends. Some years later, I became an involuntary insomniac as a new mother and stayed that way. I dropped from 8 or more to 4 or less hours a night, just like my mother. Sleeping pills left me nonfunctional the next day, too. So there I was, feeling like there was sand in my eyes and molasses in my brain. What was a girl to do?
Some of my friends had also become involuntary insomniacs after giving birth, so I discussed it with them. We exchanged ideas, did some research, and then tried the ones that seemed easy to do and possibly helpful. We adopted the ones that worked and built up a toolbox of easy-to-do habits and simple techniques. Research studies show that getting enough good quality sleep is super important for good health and contentment in life, So, we thought of our lifestyle changes as a worthwhile investment in our long term health and happiness.
Basically, we created peaceful sleeping environments and trained our bodies and minds to sleep longer and better, just like we trained our kids to brush their teeth, put away their toys, save some allowance, and fold the laundry. Here’s how we did it.
Create a Peaceful Sleeping Room
I used to have a computer, TV, landline, cell phone, CD player, and DVD player in my bedroom. For a while, I had my desk and financial records in there, too. My friends said that this would keep my mind active and that would prevent me from falling asleep. They suggested that I take my desk and all electronics out of the bedroom. I didn’t believe it would make any difference at all until I tried it and it worked. I put all that stuff into other rooms and found that my mind relaxed and shifted into sleep mode more easily. The cell phone now spends the night in the office, charging. Nighttime calls go to voice mail. Now I have a bed, a dresser, 2 night tables, 2 lamps, and clothes in my bedroom. That’s it.
My friends who can’t sleep if light comes through the curtains put blackout curtains on the windows and noticed that they felt more relaxed in bed. Clutter can be a constant, low-level annoyance. Those of us who had piles of clutter in our bedrooms moved the piles into other rooms. Out of sight, out of mind. We just picked them up and carried them out without sorting or putting anything away. We left that for later when we had time and energy for it. Some of us air out the bedroom every day and some do it a couple of times a week. We noticed that the bedroom feels more inviting and relaxing as a result. After doing these things, our bedrooms felt quiet, comforting, and peaceful, like good places to sleep.
Make Your Body Happy and Relaxed Before Going to Bed
Every body is different. Some of us sleep better on a full stomach and some on an empty stomach. I’m a full stomach kind of gal, so I have a snack at bedtime before brushing my teeth, something with protein, like a piece of leftover chicken, and a half glass of water or a cup of caffein-free Pero. If a glass of wine helps you sleep, have one. We steer clear of caffeine, including tea and sodas, by switching to decaffeinated drinks after lunch or dinner to let the caffeine from the day pass out of our systems.
Some of us usually wake up thirsty in the night, so we drink some water (not a lot) before bedtime and that often lets us sleep through. We all use the bathroom right before climbing into bed. We’ve found that wearing comfortable pajamas makes a difference. I turn over a lot during the night, and so prefer cotton jersey because it doesn’t bind. I used to wear woven cotton pajamas, but would wake up in the middle of the night with them tightly twisted around me like a python.
Some take a bath or shower before bedtime instead of in the morning and find that helps them to relax. We all set the thermostat to the temperature that’s most comfortable for sleeping. Some like a cool room and some like it warm. Some of us (like me) can’t fall asleep unless the house is quiet. My house is rarely quiet at bedtime, so I wear earplugs. I get the ones that block out the most sound and use them every night. They live on my nightstand. Cotton sheets feel luxurious and keep body temperature steady. Cotton regulates heat better than synthetics. What type of pillow makes you comfortable? Down, feather, kapok, buckwheat hulls, foam, memory foam? Get one that feels good to you. Is your blanket too hot or too cold for the season? You may need to get a lightweight cotton blanket for summer and a couple of heavier blankets (wool, down, other) to use individually for fall and spring, and layered for winter. Those of us who used our big, beautiful, quilted bedspreads for a blanket found that they woke up sweating in the middle of the night. Bedspread fabric is usually synthetic. They changed to natural fiber blankets and slept better.
And finally, many of us were surprised to discover that we were sleeping on uncomfortable mattresses. You get used to a mattress and stop noticing how it actually feels. Mine was hurting my back, so I tried many different mattresses until I found one that my body loved. What a difference that made.
Make Your Mind Happy and Relaxed Before Going to Bed
It’s not unusual to have difficulty shutting off daytime thoughts at bedtime. They can keep running and running and running. Next thing you know it’s 2am, then 3am and you’re wide awake. Here’s what we’ve found that relaxes our minds so they will let us fall asleep and stay asleep.
If you watch TV or movies in the evening, stop watching exciting, scary, or sad shows (including the news) about 3 hours before bedtime to give your mind, emotions and body time to relax naturally and shift into sleep mode. Pick out several slow paced, happy movies that you like and watch one just before bedtime. That’s about 1-1/2 hours during which your mind and emotions will be soothed and relaxed. One friend watches one of several period romances every night. She’s seen them so many times that they put her right to sleep. If you read before bedtime, no thrillers, horrors, politics, murder mysteries, or other disturbing books, please. Pick a soothing, happy, pleasant book for bedtime. One friend reads the most boring book she can find and it puts her right to sleep. I tried the dictionary once, but stayed up reading it into the wee hours. It was fascinating.
Every night before bedtime, train yourself to make a TO DO list for tomorrow. Keep a notebook and pencil by your bed. Write down everything that will go round and round in your mind and keep you awake. Do not try to plan or problem solve. That will keep you up. Leave that for the next day. What you’re doing is a core dump to get it all out of your head. This is a very powerful thing to do. I found that my mind stopped thinking about things after I wrote them down. Sometimes after I’ve written my list, something else pops into my head, so I write it down as I’m lying in bed, even if it’s only one thing. When I’ve gotten everything down, my mind lets go and I fall asleep.
If you’re worrying about big or small things, write them down, and tell yourself that you’ll think about them tomorrow. Then think about them tomorrow. If you notice that the same things show up on the list every morning, then they’re really bothering you and may continue to disrupt your sleep until you resolve them in some way, whether it’s by accepting and letting them go, by doing something about them, or both. If you need help to resolve something, consider who will be a good person to help you and ask them. Pick someone who respects you and will treat you with kindness and care.
When You’re Just Learning
During the period when you’re changing your sleep habits, before you’ve got a solid routine, there will be times when you sleep more and better and other times when you sleep less. That’s normal. Don’t fight it, or criticize yourself, or worry about it. Focus on the progress you’re making. Progress is good. No one’s perfect. Life isn’t perfect. Be kind to yourself regardless of whether you’re consistent or not. If you forget or procrastinate, forgive yourself and get right back to practicing your new habits. Reread this article and continue to do the things that will help you sleep more and better. The longer you do them, the better they work. Sleeping well becomes a habit.
When Something More is Needed
Let’s say you’ve trained yourself to do what works for you and have a solid daily routine going (congratulations!), but you’ve had more than the usual stress lately and you’re sleeping less than you’d like. There you are in bed, awake, trying to think yourself to sleep, wondering what to do now. Try these two techniques.
Breathing and Counting
Studies have shown that deep diaphragmatic breathing, aka belly breathing, relaxes the mind and body. It’s very easy to do. Watch this short belly breathing demonstration video from Be the Change. Then lie in bed on your back with your arms at your side and gently and slowly belly breathe for 10 minutes. For the purpose of falling asleep, use the 4-count in-breath and 4-count out-breath. Say the numbers in your mind slowly as you count. One, two, three, four. One, two, three four. Counting to yourself replaces worrying thoughts and will help you fall asleep. I often fall asleep somewhere in the middle.
When I didn’t know anything about essential oils, I couldn’t imagine how they could possibly help anyone fall asleep. Now that I know more, I’ve been amazed and delighted at how helpful they are. Lavender, valerian, cedar, sage, and clary sage are among the recommended essential oils for sleep. I’ve been using sage, which has a very earthy smell that reminds me of a forest. Since everyone is different, sage may or may not be right for you. My local health food store has tester bottles. In order to pick one, I closed my eyes and smelled each in turn. I observed how my body reacted and picked the one that smelled most pleasing and felt most soothing. I think it’s worthwhile to buy organic, since you’ll be inhaling it.
Try using your essential oil for 2 to 4 weeks and see how it works for you. If it works, keep using it. If it doesn’t, try another, one at a time, until you find one that works well. I bought an empty 2 oz glass spray bottle from the health food store and filled it with distilled water and 10 drops of organic essential oil. The bottle lives in my nightstand. I use it twice or three times a week. I spray 4 times in the air above the bed and pillows and let it settle onto them. I slip into bed, adjust the covers, and the next thing I know, it’s morning.
There’s a lot here for you to try. Don’t do everything at once. You want this to be a relaxing and productive experience, not an added source of stress. Teach yourself one at a time until you know it well and it feels like second nature. Then teach yourself another one. Meanwhile, keep practicing the good sleep habits you’ve already learned. You’ll get there. We did.
Have fun with these tips and let us know what works for you.