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In Search of Sleep

Sleep deprivation is the battle scar of every new mom. It's impossible to avoid, starting in pregnancy and then getting serious when your newborn needs to eat every few hours. Hearing that women require at least seven hours of sleep a night to be at their best is not helpful to those who can't log four hours in a row. Studies show that just one hour of missed sleep decreases alertness the next day by up to 25 percent, but what are you supposed to do about it? Here, tips for improving the quality of the time you do spend in bed.

You're Not Alone

"Fatigue and sleep deprivation are normal for new moms," says James Smith, MD, clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Lucille Packard Children's Hospital, in Stanford, California. Some other mammals, such as dolphins, have trouble sleeping after giving birth, too, Dr. Smith says, so even if our infants slept eight hours in a row, moms might still be wakeful. Fortunately, this is all temporary -- though not temporary enough. You're in for weeks (or, honestly, months) of sleep disruption. Acceptance is half the battle; feeling bitter and resentful won't help you feel any more rested.

Dr. Smith tells his patients to practice good sleep hygiene. The following 10 healthy habits can both increase the quantity and improve the quality of your sleep. They're as beneficial to your health as brushing and flossing.

  • Create a bedtime ritual centered around going to sleep at about the same time every night. It works for kids and for adults too!
  • Don't smoke. Smokers tend to sleep lightly, have reduced amounts of REM sleep, and wake after three or four hours because of nicotine withdrawal.
  • Skip the nightcap. Drinking alcohol may make you feel sleepy, but it actually prevents you from falling into a deep rest.
  • Watch caffeine. Avoid coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, and some pain relievers (check the label) at least two hours before bed (and some experts say none after noon).
  • Exercise during the day. It helps you sleep better at night. Just don't work out close to bedtime, because you can't sleep during an adrenaline rush.
  • Don't sleep on a full or empty tummy. Try a light, bland snack such as crackers or decaf herbal tea.
  • Wear loose cotton clothes to bed. They may not be the sexiest, but comfort is key.
  • Keep your bedroom cool. Neil Kline, sleep specialist and representative of the American Sleep Association (sleepassociation.org), recommends choosing a temperature close to 70 degrees F. that feels cool to you.
  • Keep your bedroom dark and quiet, Kline says. This means you should banish the bedroom TV. "If you need noise, try a fan," he suggests.
  • Relax and clear your mind for 15 minutes before bed. Read, do a crossword puzzle, or take a bath. Dealing with laundry, bills, or dishes before lying down is not conducive to sleep!

Don't become one of those parents who boasts about lack of sleep like it's some kind of honor. You need rest to recharge your body. Improper rest can have consequences that range from irritating to life threatening. Staying up late to clean or watch movies is silly when you consider that a lack of sleep can cause:

  • Weight gain: You don't have energy to exercise when you're tired, plus your body craves carbohydrates in its effort to find energy. Kline also explains that when you're not sleeping properly, levels of the hormone ghrelin (which triggers appetite) rise and levels of the hormone leptin (which controls appetite) drop.
  • Bad moods and safety concerns: Sleep deprivation leaves you impatient and unable to concentrate. More troublesome side effects are poor judgment and slow reaction time -- scary if you're watching kids or driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 car accidents each year are linked to fatigue.
  • More colds: Sleep helps boost the immune system. If you're wiped out, you're less able to fend off colds.
  • Memory loss: According to Harvard Women's Health Watch, the REM stage of sleep helps the brain process new information and remember it.

There's a five-stage sleep cycle, repeating throughout the night, that lasts from 90 to 110 minutes. Stage one is the lightest stage, when we're falling asleep. At stage two, brain waves slow and we drift into a deeper sleep. During stages three and four, we fall into the deepest and most restorative states. Brain waves slow to a crawl, and we're completely at rest. Finally, we move into the REM (rapid eye movement) stage, in which our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, our heart rate drops, and our eyes move quickly. This is when we dream.

It's the deep sleep -- stages three and four -- that we need most, and if your infant happens to cry while you're in deep sleep, rousing yourself can feel like trying to escape from quicksand. There's no easy solution, but trading off nighttime duty with a spouse can help. You both emerge a little sleep deprived, but neither of you is completely shot! The other gold-standard advice: sleep when the baby sleeps. It might be hard to tune out your racing mind and lie down with baby for an afternoon nap, but it's worth a try. Experts say your body responds to sleep deprivation by moving into the deep-sleep stages even faster than it normally does.

Aromas such as lavender and chamomile induce sleep, so try placing a sachet or reed diffuser next to your bed (but never burn a candle).

Can't get back to sleep? Don't get worked up because anxiety about insomnia makes it worse. Leave your bed and read in another room until you feel tired again.

Maybe you can't blame it all on the baby. According to studies, women are more likely than men to be disturbed by a partner's tossing and turning (not to mention snoring!).


Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the May 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.

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