To all the sleepyheads out there

Posted on: May 6th, 2019 by Lindsey Rogers, LCPC

If you have ever tried to sleep-train a baby, you have probably experienced a high level of ineffectiveness and loss of control when it comes to sleep. The idea of “sleeping like a baby” can feel like a real misnomer. There is a plethora of sleep accessories, from swaddles to sleep sacks to a wonder called the Baby Merlin Magic Sleepsuit (which, to sleep-deprived parents, really does seem otherworldly if it works for your little one), all of which are marketed to get your baby sleeping through the night and napping on cue. From the jump, sleep is something that seems challenging and a struggle to obtain. Babies are even labeled as good or bad sleepers, which can result in a look of envy and awe or a knowing, exhausted nod from fellow new parents, depending on what is happening in your home. If we take some insight about what helps kids actually effectively learn to sleep, it’s that the environment, timing, and routine have to be right. New parents are told all the time to be intentional about a winding-down routine at night. Just lower the lights, after a calming bath, play soothing music and put on one of those aforementioned suits on to keep your kid from moving and waking themselves up. Whether you have done it for a child or someone spent nights trying to lull you to slumber, the truth is we put a ton of time and energy into teaching children how to put themselves to sleep.

Maybe it has been a very long time since you have been given the nightly bath-story-and-lullaby routine, yet perhaps you are still identifying yourself as a bad sleeper and you dread your bed. Perhaps this is more your familiar routine: You have been tossing and turning. There are no more sheep to count. You are watching the clock tick by and know as each minute passes, you are going to get less and less sleep and your anxiety grows and grows. If so, you likely characterize yourself as a bad sleeper or describe always have a hard time sleeping. But here’s the thing: If we take a page from sleep-training infants, there is hope that good sleep habits can be learned and a restful night is possible.

Set yourself up for rest

A good place to start when you are trying to improve your sleep is to first examine your sleeping conditions and sleep hygiene. Ideally you are sleeping in a room that is comfortable, quiet, cool, and dark. What your bedroom looks like can matter when you are awake and the lights are on, but when you are trying to get a good night’s sleep, what your bedroom feels like is the big concern. Whatever you can do to make it a pleasing sensory experience, the better. Maybe disarray in your bedroom causes you to struggle to fall asleep because it triggers negative thoughts. Perhaps you need a firmer pillow. Maybe a sound machine can help. When you are getting into bed, what sorts of thoughts do you have attached to your sensory experience? This will give you a good sense of whether your detergent actually doesn’t smell that great or the light from across the street annoys you. When you go to bed tonight, be mindful of your experience, both the good and the bad, to gauge what you might need to improve. Consistency is key when it comes to sleep so you want to make sure you are going to bed and getting up around the same time each day—even on weekends. Avoid large meals, caffeine, or alcohol before bedtime. Daily exercise can also aid you in feeling fatigued and ready for bedtime. Another important aspect of a good sleeping environment is the lack of stimulus. Cutting out electronics 30 minutes before bed is a great idea. Reading is a great activity before bed provided you are not using an e-reader or your phone that may stimulate you to stay awake, so keep that habit old school and use actual books in bed. If you watch your alarm clock and it causes you to panic, see if turning the clock around can give you some relief.

Okay, so ideal situations are, well, ideal and often unobtainable. It’s totally understandable that you may not have a perfect sleep environment if you live on a busy street in Chicago with lots of lights and sounds and you share a bed with your heat-rock of a partner or your wiggly toddler. A top of the line memory-foam mattress is no match for snores, elbows to the face, and a lousy ventilation system. But take some time to think about your environment and what changes you can make to your room, your bed, or your routine to help yourself get closer to that ideal. What can you control? If you are in the mindset of positivity and problem solving, you will already be moving away from labeling yourself a bad sleeper.

Bed equals sleep

If your environment is pro-slumber and you are still tossing and turning, take some time to create a sleep log. Try to keep track of when you go to bed, when you fall asleep, the duration of your sleep, and how you are feeling when you wake up. If your pattern is that you go to bed at 10:00 p.m. but you toss and turn and eventually fall asleep at midnight and sleep until 6:00 a.m., maybe you should try consolidating your sleep. If you are only getting 6 hours of sleep a night, get into bed closer to when you are typically falling asleep. Perhaps this sounds counterintuitive, but we want to pair the thought of your bed with sleep instead of sleeplessness. Tossing and turning and being a bad sleeper can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if you figure out your sleep pattern and you adjust your timing and you are still not catching those ZZZs, get out of your bed. If you are not sleeping for more than 15 minutes, get up and go do something to fatigue yourself. Maybe it is a boring task like unloading the dishwasher or getting a glass of water or doing some light yoga. Whatever is going to tire you out versus stimulate you is a great idea; then try going to bed again. Bed should equal comfort and restful sleep so if that is not your equation, get up for a bit and then start again.

Hoping for sweeter dreams

Often bedtime can be rough because it signals the end of the day and offers lots of time to process what happened. Anxiety or negative self-talk are like, woohoo, time to join this party! No distractions leave you alone with thoughts and feelings about what happened today and what will happen tomorrow. Yikes, that is a nightmare! Before you get into that close-to-ideal bed situation, give yourself some time to write down your thoughts. Journaling is a great tool to beat anxiety, to give yourself processing time of which you are in control. Write down some thoughts about your day, what you are proud of or grateful for, and/or even a to-do list if you are thinking about tomorrow. And then literally close up that book, fold up that paper, or at least move the post-it away from your bed. Make the act of putting away your thoughts (good, bad, and otherwise) intentional as you get into bed. Perhaps do some deep breathing as you cover yourself with your blankets and think about covering yourself with calming, restful, positive feelings.

Sometimes despite our best efforts, we wake up after an actual nightmare or just find ourselves awake in the middle of the night. Again, if the tossing and turning is prolonged, get out of bed and give yourself a new sensory experience like a drink of water and then try to get back into bed when you feel tired. If you are overwhelmed by images in your dream, try to write them down and then close them up in a notebook, or just visualize putting that thought or feeling away again to signal to yourself that you should compartmentalize and focus on sleep again.

Get ready for a snoozefest

If you are struggling with sleep and some behavioral or cognitive changes are not giving you relief, please get yourself checked out by a medical professional to determine if your symptoms are related to a physical ailment or could be treated with medication. There are sleep centers that can help determine causes for insomnia and provide treatment for sleeping issues. There are also helpful apps out there that use guided meditation to increase relaxation as you try to fall asleep. If anxious thoughts are overwhelming you, please consider psychotherapy or at least talking with friends and family about what is bothering you and perhaps keeping you up at night.

Sleep does not have to be a far-fetched goal that you have no control over, whether you’re an infant learning to sleep for the first time or an adult battling nightly bouts of restlessness. With some effort and consistency, it is possible to improve your attachment to sleeping. You started out as a tiny human who had no idea when it was the right time to be awake and someone likely helped you to learn to self-soothe and go to sleep. So help yourself re-learn that same self-soothing behavior. Take care of yourself and good night!

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