Dr. Kathryn Sharkey, a sleep expert from Brown University, told the New York Times, “A female patient will come in complaining of insomnia, and when asked how long she’s had it, will say, ‘Fifteen years—ever since my baby was born.’”
Almost everyone suffers from sleep deprivation at some point in life. But it can be so bad when you have a young child that it can literally feel like torture. Worse, as exhaustion builds, you may get so anxious—“I have to fall asleep before the baby wakes again!”—that it’s even harder to fall asleep.
Sure, you’re focused on giving your baby lots of care and love. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of your health. In fact, if your baby could speak, he’d say, “Hey—I need you a lot, so stay healthy!”
If you’re getting your baby’s sleep under control but battling insomnia yourself, try these sleep-enhancing tips.
Tips for Insomnia
1. Prepare Your Room
Make sure your room is a little cool, with good ventilation. And remember that white noise isn’t just for your baby! The brain has a hard time paying attention to two things at once, so white noise covers over disturbing sounds from the next-door neighbors or passing trucks or trains. Try white noise for yourself (start it softly, an hour before sleep to give your brain a few days to get used to it).
Even better, white noise covers over the flood of worries that may be preventing sleep from coming. These sounds allow your tired brain to ignore burdensome thoughts and slide more easily into sleep. Many moms and dads find a rain on the roof sound soothing; just start it softly, about an hour before bedtime, and increase the nighttime volume over time.
Note: Not all white noise is the same. Higher-pitched sounds can be alerting, rather than calming. So, if you find white noise annoying, try a lower-pitched sound; for example, the specially engineered Happiest Baby white noise CD or digital download. And here’s another idea: keep a pen and paper by your bed so you can just jot down important ideas, rather than staying up and fretting that you might forget them.
And here’s another idea: keep a pen and paper by your bed so you can just jot down important ideas, rather than staying up and fretting that you might forget them.
Most important of all, remember: light is the enemy of sleep! For thousands of years, darkness was the brain’s cue to get ready to sleep. (Electric lights have only been around for a hundred years.)
Your house lights trick your brain into thinking it’s still afternoon. The brain then shuts off your natural melatonin, which delays your drowsiness until much later at night. You’ll feel more alert in the evening, but you’ll be exhausted when your little one wakes you up at the crack of dawn.
So, an hour before bedtime, dim the lights…and dim or turn off your computer or cell-phone screen too! While you sleep, wear an eye mask or put a towel over any bright lights in your bedroom (cable boxes, alarm clocks, etc.).
When you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t turn on the lights. Use a little flashlight or night-light, and resist the urge to look at the bright screen of your cell phone to check your e-mails or texts.
2. Prepare Your Body
Get some sunshine every day to set your internal clock. If you live somewhere with a long, dark, winter, consider getting special SAD lights (for the prevention of seasonal affective disorder).
No matter how hectic your schedule is, get some exercise every day. Aim for at least 20 minutes (30 is even better)—but in a pinch, go out for one or two laps around the block. If you can, get a friend to go with you. It’s usually best not to exercise within 3 hours of bedtime.
A little daytime nap can be a big help, too.
And at the risk of sounding like your mother…are you eating well? Exhaustion can make you eat impulsively, cause you to crave carbs and fat and throw your metabolism into a weight-gaining spiral. Weight gain, in turn, can lead to poor sleep…which can start a vicious cycle.
Nip that cycle in the bud by eating 3 medium meals a day and a snack or two. Choose whole grains or high-fiber foods and snack on fruits, veggies, hummus and crackers. Try to skip the Twinkies and reach for foods with some protein, like nuts, trail mix, a fried egg or a glass of warm milk (maybe with some honey).
Make lunch your big meal and eat dinner at least three hours before bedtime. And avoid anything with caffeine, including coffee, tea, cola, chocolate and energy drinks. Decongestants, diet supplements and Chinese herbs can also contain stimulants that thwart sleep.
Some warm mint tea is soothing and can put you in the mood for slumber, too. (In Serbian, mint is called nana—which means “grandma”—because it’s what Grandma offers to comfort her family.)
If your partner snores, a strong white noise may reduce your brain’s attention to the ruckus. And get that snoring checked out, because it might be a sign of a correctable problem.
3. Prepare Your Mind
Laughter is one of the world’s best stress reducers. So, dig out your favorite funny movies, read a book that makes you giggle or call a friend with a great sense of humor.
When you lie down, do a little bedtime sweet talk with yourself. And I know I’m sounding like your mother again…but count your blessings several times each day. Each time, fill your heart with gratitude and love.
Also, don’t sweat the small stuff. Turn off your phone, delay writing thank-you notes and put off chores like vacuuming.
Avoid sleeping medications, but ask your doctor about taking some magnesium, valerian or melatonin. These may promote sleep without making you too drowsy to respond to your child’s middle-of-the-night needs. Resist the urge to have a beer or a glass of wine before bedtime; it’s likely to lead to more nighttime waking, and it can reduce your ability to respond to your baby’s needs. (And if you’re nursing, remember that what you drink, your baby drinks.)
Finally, create a regular “wind-down” routine for yourself in the evening. Give your baby a massage (it’ll relax both of you), listen to quiet music, turn off the TV, read a book or write in a journal.