Post No.: 0350
During the day – if you have naps during the daytime then don’t over-nap. Busy the mind during the day too – stimulate your brain, see new sights, learn new things!
Regularly exercise, preferably ~6 hours before it’s bedtime, or if not then earlier in the day rather than later than that. Exercise, at any time of the day apart from too close to bedtime, will have beneficial effects for the quality of your sleep. The morning has an advantage because if you exercise outside then you’ll get your daily dose of natural sunlight, and the afternoon has an advantage because your body will be warmer, which lowers the risk of injury and allows you to put in some higher performances (unless it gets too hot). If you prefer to exercise in the evening and that works for you then that’s no problem, or if it’s the only time you have to do any exercise then try something gentler like simple stretching, yoga or tai chi.
Just before going to bed – having a hot bath or shower can help you to feel drowsy because it causes the body to gradually drop in temperature after coming out, which mimics what the body naturally does as it gradually falls asleep. (I personally prefer washing just before bedtime anyway rather than stewing in the day’s grime for another several hours before finally washing in the morning.) That’s probably one reason why consuming a heavy meal too late at night can keep us awake or interrupt our sleep – when we’re digesting food, our body temperature becomes raised for a while when we want it to cool down slightly to get to sleep. Feelings of indigestion can also keep us awake. It’s the same problem with exercising too close to bedtime because exercise raises our metabolism and keeps our body temperature elevated long after we’ve finished too. As we wake up, the reverse happens as our body temperature gradually rises.
Write a list of what you’ve got to do for the next day or of what’s occupying your mind, plus some ideas about how to start solving them, before bedtime, then try not to think about those things again until the next day. Worrying about anything (including about not being able to sleep itself!) can keep us awake. If you’re worried about something specific then jot it down and try to allow the thought to drift through your mind without focusing on it. Try mindfulness meditation.
As well as avoiding heavy, rich or spicy meals – avoid caffeine or alcohol just before bedtime too. Alcohol is a sedative, and sedation is not the same as sleep. It may help one to seemingly fall asleep faster but it increases the chances of a disturbed night – you will likely wake up within a couple of hours and struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep again. Alcohol also reduces our ability to have REM sleep, which is an important stage of the sleep cycle. If you are really hungry though then go for a small, high-carbohydrate snack (e.g. a banana). A high-fibre final meal of the day might also help. Note that caffeine has a half-life of ~5-6 hours, so you’ll still have 25% of the caffeine in your system after ~10-12 hours! Tryptophan-rich foods (e.g. spinach, nuts, seeds, milk), along with consuming some carbohydrate, helps to synthesise serotonin, which in turn can be converted into melatonin (at least in theory, albeit in practice consuming tryptophan appears to have no effect on sleep). So far, the evidence shows that herbal or hot milky drinks don’t actually help one to sleep much, but they might seem to work for some because it’s a behavioural part of their sleep routine – in which case they won’t be a problem unless you drink too much and need to wake up in the middle of the night because you need to pee!
For a good night’s sleep – treat your bedroom as only for sleeping in and for sex i.e. not for work, leisure or anything else. Make this room dark, quiet and calming. Use only soft, dim, ambient lighting as you prepare to sleep. Don’t suddenly turn on any bright lights. Light towards the blue end of the spectrum is especially effective in keeping one awake so avoid any TV, computer or mobile device screens or cool-white LED lights. Or if you insist you must use these devices in the bedroom before you sleep, try using red, amber or green room lighting if your devices don’t have ‘night light’ settings that make the screens look redder (or really less blue); although most devices do nowadays. You could alternatively get cheap tinted glasses, which you could wear 2 or 3 hours before you go to bed to block out any and every blue light source you might unwittingly come across, and to increase your melatonin production. However, it’s not just the light but also the activities themselves (e.g. browsing, social media, watching a programme) that can keep us awake. Woof!
Make sure the bedroom is not too hot or too cold (18°C and 65% humidity is good for most people) – wear socks if it helps. Playing white noise at a low volume may drown out any disturbances. A pleasant smell can also help (e.g. lavender). Make the bedroom feel safe and secure – any worries about danger won’t help one to nod off. If your partner keeps you awake, try a larger bed (e.g. a king size bed).
As you lay in bed – think of happy, positive, pleasant and relaxing scenarios and imagery. Try creating a wonderful detailed fantasy world in your head but avoid anything too exciting or arousing (e.g. plan your perfect holiday or evening out). If you need to, maybe try faking the signs of sleepiness, yawning and imagining your eyes getting really heavy and your muscles going floppy (try tensing each muscle in your body one at a time, for 10 seconds each, then relaxing, working from your toes upwards).
Or if that fails, try some reverse psychology and force yourself to keep your eyes open (blinking is allowed) and stay awake but in bed, without thinking too much or doing anything stimulating such as any deep problem solving. You can keep your eyes open but don’t read, watch TV, play on a phone/tablet or move about.
Distracting and tiring your brain is another possible strategy that might work for you (e.g. think of an animal for every letter of the alphabet or try counting down in threes starting from one hundred and one). Like the way some people prefer to exercise early in the morning and some prefer to do so later in the afternoon, or even evening, and it works for them – different strategies for getting to sleep if you struggle can work for different people.
Listening to instrumental music, or music without lyrics, can help one to fall asleep, but keeping the music on when you’re asleep can disrupt it. This is kind of intuitive because parents understand that gentle lullabies can help babies, infants or toddlers to sleep. (Babies and infants don’t understand the words and toddlers might expect them as part of their sleep routine.) So quietly play a soporific piece of music that you like as you sleep – over time, this piece might also become associated with sleeping for you?
If you wake up in the middle of the night – if you’ve not been able to get back to sleep for 20 minutes then get up and do something non-stimulating. Preferably do something pleasant and relaxing that uses your hands as well as your head, but avoid bright lights or computer screens (e.g. do a jigsaw puzzle or draw).
Keep a notepad and pen next to your bed and write down a note if you’ve just suddenly remembered something important or any ideas spring to mind that you think are worth remembering, then go back to sleep. Insomnia can be made worse by being anxious about not being able to sleep – it’s a vicious cycle, so try not to play on whatever’s making you feel anxious and instead think about having sweet dreams. You’re probably getting more sleep than you think, and relaxing in bed is still good for you. See Post No.: 0329 for more about insomnia.
You could try doing some mindfulness meditation during this time. Just don’t pull out an electronic device and play on that as this will just keep you awake for longer because of the light and/or activity itself.
And as soon as you get up when you want (or more often need!) to get up – get some natural sunlight in your eyes as soon as you can to fully wake yourself up. (Or I guess this is where an electronic device with bright, blue spectrum light can be useful if you are a shift worker and need to be up at night, but do get out of the bedroom first rather than use it in bed.) This is better than relying on caffeine.
For children – a firm 30-minute or so bedtime routine is vital (e.g. bath, light massage, cuddle, place in bed, bedtime story, turn out the lights). Avoid anything too stimulating just before bed (e.g. no TV, video games, caffeinated soda, rough or highly active games). A bedtime chart will help your children to see the steps they need to go through before they sleep.
Associate bedtime with a pleasurable time (e.g. play a quiet game with soft toys, read a bedtime story or draw a picture just before they sleep). Bedtime stories allow children to spend quality time with their parents, develop their language skills and will help them to gently fall asleep – some classic bedtime tales might also serve to teach important furry life lessons that can help them to cope with everyday stresses and concerns.
Only for children older than 1 year old and if they don’t have a phobia or trauma from being left alone or have any other relevant health problems – if they cry and perhaps get out of bed every time you’re not there and you’re certain it’s just for attention, and you’ve heeded all of the tips above about routine and environment (and in previous posts on this topic of sleep), then try a ‘graduated extinction’ technique. Start off by staying with your child until they fall asleep, then leave. If they start crying then wait for 5 minutes (increasing this duration every few days if this behaviour continues) then with only minimal attention get them back to sleep (just say calmly, “It’s time for bed, go back to bed” and don’t cuddle them). If they struggle to sleep without you nearby then gradually retreat – start by being next to your child and waiting until they’re asleep, then a few days later, move to the edge of the bed until they nod off, then over time gradually move further and further away from their bed until you no longer need to be in the same room as them. Resist any protests, give only minimal attention and calmly but firmly lead them back to bed each time.
Although this technique is controversial for very young kids for it can involve ‘crying it out’, it’s about the balance between showing care without rewarding concession or attention-seeking behaviours when they really need to sleep for their health and growth. If you want, you can stay in their room at all times rather than gradually leave.
Woof! If you have any more tips or tricks on how to get a good night’s sleep then please share them with us by replying to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below.