Let’s face it, sleep disruptions start in pregnancy, but motherhood takes it up another level. Of course, we all know that we’re going to miss out on some sleep with a new baby but I’m not sure we all realise how deeply impacting sleep deprivation can be. I certainly didn’t realise that I may not be sleeping properly for years.
In some ways, sleep is something that people give up so easily. We trade sleep for socialising, entertainment (hello Netflix) and productivity (chores, organisation, getting work or personal tasks done). It might be the only time when we can be alone, enjoy the silence, and do something just for ourselves, without anyone touching or needing anything from us. When it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day, it’s understandable that you might want to take advantage of those night hours!
However, if sleep deprivation becomes relentless and feels out of our control in motherhood, we might suddenly become more focused on the fact that we actually need it. We might even crave it.
To be honest, I’m still very likely to trade sleep for “me time” or work. At the time, it seems like a really great ideal. But, I’ve learned that I can’t do this too often, or I end up in an undesirable state – intolerant, impatient, and not at all fun. I struggle to focus and am definitely more emotionally fragile. Furthermore, by around 2 or 3pm, I’m falling asleep sitting up, as I go about my day!
Why we need to get enough sleep
There is now so much research on our need for sleep and how it impacts all aspects of our wellbeing.
Poor sleep can have a negative impact on your:
- Brain function, including memory, focus and decision-making ability
- Disease risk
- Exercise performance
- Mental health, including anxiety, depression and stress
- Task performance (you are slower to complete tasks, with less accuracy)
- Mood, including increased feelings of anger and hostility
- Social competence, including communication.
Quite a list, isn’t it!?
I also found it interesting to learn about how sleep is essential for your brain health. While you sleep, your brain clears the toxic waste proteins that accumulate between the cells all day. And over time, lack of sleep can lead to an irreversible loss of brain cells.
An Australian study found that once you’re awake for 17-19 hours, you start to function as if you had a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent. Any more and you wouldn’t be allowed to drive in Australia, so it’s interesting to consider the impact on the other tasks we’re doing each day. We might not always be behind the wheel, but we are responsible for the safety and care of our children, plus other important responsibilities in life.
In her book, “The Sleep Revolution”, Ariana Huffington explains that the Great British Sleep Survey found that sleep-deprived people were seven times more likely to experience feelings of helplessness, and 5 times more likely to feel lonely. She also quotes psychologist Brad Wolgast, who says that in 80-90% of cases of anxiety or depression, there are also sleep problems. Considering that all these issues are common motherhood experiences, it’s important for us to know that sleep appears to exacerbate them all.
Lastly, I was surprised to learn that a lack of sleep could also impact your experience of childbirth. Huffington cites a study by the University of California, where women who slept less than 6 hours a night in their ninth month of pregnancy, had longer labours and were 4.5 times more likely to require caesarean deliveries.
How much sleep do we need?
So, exactly how much sleep do we need?
It differs from person to person and women need more sleep than men, but on average we need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
I know, I know.
For many of us, that seems impossible. Laughable almost, when you consider all the times you’re awake dealing with normal motherhood occurrences like sick children, nightmares, regular waking, bedsharing or feeding your baby through the night. Then take into account the way it can be hard to turn your mind off. That is, if you’ve even managed to get everything done so you can go to bed!
Even though you can’t always (or ever) get a full 7-9 hours of sleep, there are still things you can do to improve the duration and quality of your sleep. And when you do, you’ll see so many benefits in all areas of your wellbeing. So, let’s not write off better sleep completely, just because we can’t get to that magic 7-9 hours. Every improvement in our sleep is beneficial.
How to sleep better
Here are some practical and manageable ways to improve both the duration and quality of your sleep. Give a few a try and pick the ones that work for you.
1. Aim to relax, rather than sleep
Feeling stressed about not being able to sleep, can make it even harder! Not focusing on falling asleep might be your answer. Instead, focus on moving yourself to a peaceful, relaxed state. Sleep comes naturally in this state.
If you’re feeling anxious because you’ve been lying in bed, trying to sleep, for some time, change to a relaxing activity like reading a book or listening to some calming music to help shift your mental and emotional state. Then try again.
Research shows this is one of the best ways to improve your sleep. Just don’t do it right before bedtime, or instead of sleeping. You don’t have to do a formal exercise session every day. Just move more. Walk instead of driving, go the long way, do something active with the kids or take the stairs. The effects of this one may take a few weeks to kick in, so stick with it.
3. Get some sunlight
Exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning, and during the day, keeps your circadian rhythm (your body’s natural time-keeping clock) in check. Then, avoid bright lights in the evening. You can even dim your house lights, or use lamps instead of ceiling lights to prepare yourself for sleep. This can improve the quality and duration of your sleep and also reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.
4. Avoid electronic devices in the hour before bedtime
The blue light emitted from electronic devices tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime. This reduces your sleep hormone, melatonin. So, avoid using devices for at least 1 hour before bedtime.
If you do need to use devices, then you might like to try:
- Blue light blocking glasses
- Apps that reduce the blue light emitted from devices, such as f.lux
- Night mode on your smartphone.
5. Create a simple, relaxing bedtime routine
The idea here is to create space between your day and bedtime, where you let go of all the stress and activity, and end the day in a peaceful state. When we’re stressed, our minds can’t settle, which makes it very hard to sleep. So, anything that helps us calm down and de-stress can positively impact our sleep. A consistent daily routine helps indicate to your mind and body that it is time for rest.
It doesn’t have to take a long time. Even a 10 minute bedtime routine will help.
Here are some options:
- Taking a warm shower or bathing your feet in warm water
- Doing some yoga
- Journaling (write about anything you like, or do a mind dump of everything that comes to mind)
- Practicing gratitude (for example, writing or thinking about 3 things you are grateful for that day)
- Listening to calming music
- Listening to a sleep story (try apps like Calm, Slumber or Sleep Story)
- Visualising things that are relaxing and serene to you
- Doing breathing exercises
- Lying on an acupressure mat to stimulate the pressure points associated with relaxation and stress relief
- Using your favourite skin and personal care products.
6. Use sleep affirmations
Sleep affirmations can help turn off the mental chatter and focus your mind on being calm and open to sleep. I use this affirmation nearly every night;
If you need some inspiration to find an affirmation that you love, check out “Sleep Affirmations: 200 Phrases for a Deep and Peaceful Sleep“, by Jennifer Williamson.
7. Use essential oils
Pure lavender and valerian essential oils have long been found to help people sleep. I have also found cedarwood particularly effective, and if you need something a little stronger, vetiver may help (Note: cedarwood and vetiver are not recommended during pregnancy).
You can diffuse these oils in your bedroom, or apply them to your skin (I put cedarwood mixed in a carrier oil on my forehead). I also have a beautiful “Tranquil” blend in a roller that contains Lavender, Cedarwood and Roman Chamomile essential oils. Alternatively, there are many sleep-related products available that contain essential oils, such as pillow sprays, body moisturiser, body wash and sleep balms.
8. Breathe deeply
This is a technique I use nearly every night in bed. Your breathing slows when you’re sleeping, so deliberately breathing slower helps you to move into that state. Simply take slower, deeper breaths as you lie in bed, to calm your nervous system down.
If you’re feeling tense, you can combine this slower breathing with a body scan. Starting at the top of your head, focus on each part of your body in turn. Each time you breathe out, release the tension from that part of your body. Once that body part feels relaxed, move to the next one. I hardly ever make it all the way to my toes before falling asleep.
9. Create an optimal sleep environment
Your sleep environment can make it harder to fall asleep and then create sleep disruptions through the night. Improve your sleep by improving your environment. This includes:
- A cool room, ideally 15-19 degrees (this helps your body to cool naturally as you sleep), with bedding that keeps you warm, but not hot.
- As little light as possible (blackout curtains may be useful).
- Red or orange night lights only (because they don’t interfere with your melatonin levels).
- No phones or other unnecessary electronic devices.
- As quiet as possible. If you need to drown out noises, a white noise machine may be helpful.
- The right pillow to support your head and neck, according to your sleeping position (this helps to reduce sleep disturbances and avoid neck and shoulder pain).
10. Choose food and drink wisely
Many of us use sugar and caffeine to keep our energy levels up during the day, but these don’t give us sustained, slow-release energy. Instead, they cause peaks in our energy levels followed by a crash (usually that’s when we reach for another serve).
Caffeine can impact our sleep even when consumed 6 hours before bedtime. So, from the afternoon onwards, switch to decaf, or sleep-friendly herbal tea. If you love the taste of coffee, dandelion root tea has a very similar taste, without caffeine.
It’s also wise to avoid alcohol before bed because it can disrupt sleep patterns and reduce melatonin, even if you find it makes you sleepy initially.
A pre-bedtime snack can prevent hunger from waking you in the middle of the night. It’s better to have a snack rather than a meal right before bed though, as your body takes 2-3 hours to digest food, and your metabolism slows down at night time so give your body time to digest large meals before going to bed to support your circadian rhythms and avoid digestive discomfort.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following foods to help you fall asleep faster and sleep better:
- Whole grains, such as popcorn, oatmeal, whole-wheat crackers with nut butter
- Almonds or walnuts. These contain melatonin, the hormone that helps to regulate your sleep
- A relaxing caffeine-free tea, such as chamomile, ginger or peppermint, or a sleep blend.
- Warm milk. The benefit here is most likely due to the psychological link between warm milk and bedtime in childhood.
- Fruits containing melatonin – tart cherries, bananas, pineapples, oranges, kiwis.
What about naps?
So, if we aren’t getting our 7-9 hours of sleep a night, should we supplement our sleep with a nap?
A nap can definitely help, if it’s between 10-20 mins long and taken between 12 and 3pm (which is aligned with your natural circadian rhythm). Experts suggest that you shouldn’t have a nap if you have trouble falling and staying asleep at night.
Changing your sleep habits is a long game, lovely. All your sleep problems won’t be fixed overnight and of course, you’ll run into hurdles such as your partner’s snoring, illness, the kids waking up more than normal, an unexpected work deadline, or extreme weather that makes it impossible to sleep well. However, if you’re getting better sleep on a more regular basis, then you’ll be better at coping with those hurdles.
Remember, that even small improvements to our sleep are worth it, because sleep impacts all areas of our wellbeing. When we are well rested, we feel better, cope better, communicate better, think better and perform better.
What’s 1 thing you can do differently today to improve your sleep?