To hear Moms talk about sleep today, it’s like it’s Ponce de Leon’s mysterious Fountain Of Youth – full of magical healing properties, but impossible to find without Johnny Depp, a pirate ship, and two tears from a virgin Mermaid. Talk to six moms, and you’ll talk to six women who are sleep deprived and desperate for rest.
But, as much as we blame our kiddos for the sleep deprivation (and trust me, they earn much of that blame on their own), you, my dear, are as much to blame. Yep. Here are three (of the many) ways that we make it harder for ourselves to fall asleep.
Wanting it too much: Sleep is kind of like dating. National Sleep Foundation expert Dr. Joseph Ojile once told me “When men want to have sex, they can’t try to force it, or they can’t perform. They have to allow themselves to perform… it’s the same with sleep. If you lie down and say ‘I’m exhausted I have to go to sleep’, you cannot…it’s a jinx”. Basically, he’s saying that sleep is like dating—you can’t Bridget Jones it and try too hard, or you’ll find that sleep’s just not that into you. Worrying about sleep activates your hypothalamus, with the end result of raising your cortisol levels – and really waking you up. If you’re freaking out about being unable to sleep, distract yourself. Get out of bed if you’ve been up for longer than 20 minutes. Read something relaxing. Do some deep breathing – anything but laying in bed, thinking about how you’re not sleeping.
You go to bed too early: Tell me if this is you – you know you toss and turn every night for an hour, so you go to bed an hour early to compensate. Sleep expert and friend Dr. Michael Breus says “Sleep is like a baseball game—if it starts at 8 and you get there at 6:30, they don’t start the game early. You just watch batting practice.” You just can’t game sleep that way. Not to mention, this practice causes you to associate the bed with tossing and turning, and not with sleep. Break the bad habit by going to sleep later than you think you should. Say you have to get up at 6:30: estimate your average amount of actual sleep (not including time laying awake)—that may just be six and a half hours. Six and a half hours before 6:30 a.m. is midnight. Add back 20 to 30 minutes to fall asleep, and 11:30 p.m. is bedtime for the first night. Once your body starts falling asleep more quickly (normal time to fall asleep is around 15 minutes), you can adjust your bedtime a little earlier every night, until you find your sweet spot for sleep.
You expect an immediate brain shut-down. Our brain doesn’t have an on-off switch. It’s more like a gas pedal: take your foot off the gas, and the car slowly comes to a stop. Yet how often are we going going going, then suddenly expect to be able to shut down for sleep? Doesn’t work. Instead, give yourself a bedtime routine – just like you did for your kids. The routine not only helps your brain slow down; over time it actually “learns” to expect sleep at the end. Start with a really simple bedtime routine – an hour before you want to be asleep, put away your devices/smartphone. Take 20 minutes to finish up any tasks you have to complete (dishes, school lunches, painting your nails). Then take an unrushed 20 minutes for “hygiene”: wash your face, take a warm shower or bath, put on a mask. Lastly, take 20 minutes for however you want to relax. Curl up with a good book. Drink some warm milk. Do some relaxing stretches. Whatever you like that feels relaxing and pampering.
Make these small changes – and you just may find this elusive Fountain of Youth after all. Pirate ships not required.