After experiencing the usual sleep disruptions that come with having babies and children, some parents find their internal clocks waking them up every few hours, even after the baby sleeps soundly and has learned to stay asleep. Some parents awake with jolts of anxiety when they don’t hear that familiar sound of 2:00 AM tears and wonder if the baby has stopped breathing. (It’s very common, so don’t feel silly.) Jayne and Paul found their sleep problems lasted far longer than their infant daughter’s! “Cynthia still sometimes cries out in the middle of the night. She gets herself right back to sleep but it would wake us up; we wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep,” Jayne said. “Both of us have become bad sleepers. I used to sleep like a rock, now I’m always keeping one ear out for her. Both of us really have a hard time falling back to sleep. She can cry out once, and we are awake for hours.”
Treat yourself and your spouse with the same tenderness you give your child, and take your own sleep needs just as seriously as you take those of your child. You spent a lot of time creating an appropriate bedtime routine for your child to ensure that baby sleeps; make sure you have one for yourself. Give yourself time to unwind and switch your own gears from wake to sleep, and learn to respect your own sleep windows. It can take one to three months for parents’ sleep to get back on track, but if you follow the advice below on healthy adult sleep habits, it may go faster:
- Go to bed and wake up at around the same time (and while you have young children you might want to set your bedtime earlier than usual). Even on weekends, try not to modify it by more than an hour. Routines “condition” us for sleep, psychologically and physiologically, and the conditioned response then makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Give yourself plenty of time to wind down, letting your body and mind become more relaxed and ready for sleep. Put work aside 2-3 hours before bedtime. Listen to quiet music, take a bath, read a book. Some people find light stretches, meditation, creative visualization, or progressive relaxation helps. This is the adult equivalent of going to bed drowsy but awake!
- If you need to catch up on sleep, rather than tinker too much with your nightly sleep schedules, take naps, but no later than mid afternoon. Either take a short 20- to 30-minute nap, or take a longer 90-to 100-minute nap so you don’t wake up during a non-REM sleep cycle feeling groggy. Before I learned this fact, when napping, I used to set my alarm for one hour and wake up feeling lethargic and lousy, like I needed a major infusion of caffeine.
- Make sure your bed and your bedroom are sleep-friendly. Your room should be quiet, dark, and secure, and your mattress, pillows, and sheets should be comfortable. Sort out any temperature-control issues with your spouse! Save your bed for sleep and sex – not TV or work.
- Exercise at least twenty to thirty minutes three times a week, but try to do it in the morning or during the day, not in the evening. If possible, leave at least three to four hours between strenuous exercise and sleep, and you certainly don’t want to work out right before you go to bed.
- Try to get some natural light in the afternoon. Go for a walk, sit in a sunny room; try to get out of the house or at least briefly escape your artificially-lit office cubicle. Dim lights 2-3 hours before bedtime. All of this helps to set your brain’s internal clock to your sleep-wake schedule.
- Eat dinner at least three hours before going to bed.
- Reduce your caffeine consumption, and don’t have any caffeine for at least six to eight hours before bedtime because it stays in your bloodstream. Caffeine doesn’t just mean coffee, it means tea, many sodas, chocolate, and some over-the-counter cold and headache remedies. We become more sensitive to caffeine as we approach our forties.
- Nicotine is a stimulant, so if you haven’t stopped smoking, poor sleep is yet another incentive.
- Watch your alcohol consumption. Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but more than three to five glasses, even less for some individuals, fragments our sleep. We wake up more often at night and earlier in the morning.
- Avoid sleeping pills which can be habit forming and become ineffective over time.
- If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and read something calming or boring until you feel groggy again.
- Consider a visit to an adult sleep specialist.
Remember, just as for our children, the same applies to us – sleep begets sleep. So, take naps when you can. Hire a babysitter if that’s an option, or arrange some co-op sitting with a friend. Get to bed early, by ten o’clock or earlier, even if you are normally a night owl. I know the temptation is to get the kids down and then run around and pick up the house and answer your e-mail and do a load of laundry and pay the bills but, really, you are better off going to bed at the first available moment. These type of activities sometimes rev up your heart and mind and make sleep next to impossible! You’ll manage to get the essentials done during the day, and whatever isn’t essential can and should wait a few more weeks (or, some would say, eighteen more years)! When you’re sitting in a hallway at three a.m., shushing a baby back to sleep, you may be really glad you had that few extra hours of quality sleep!
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