Finally, the baby's down. You fall into bed, squeeze your eyes closed, and ten minutes later ... you're still awake. Even though you're exhausted, your mind is running at warp speed as you watch the hours tick by.
Almost two thirds of women suffer symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), and 48 percent of all Americans report insomnia occasionally. "A lot of new parents are hyper-vigilant: They're listening for the baby's cry and more aware of their surroundings at night," says Stephanie Silberman, Ph.D., a psychologist in Cooper City, Florida, who is a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Of course, sleep issues don't only affect parents of young children. They can make anyone cranky. Sleep loss has also been linked to several health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, heart attack, and stroke. But for parents especially, it can be unsafe to schlep a kid around when you're drained.
The NSF has found that three in ten women pop an over-the-counter sleep aid at least a few times a week, but experts say medications should be a last resort. So we asked sleep specialists to go beyond the tips you've heard before and share their favorite drug-free secrets for a good snooze.
1. Reserve the hour before bed for relaxing activities. Many moms and dads have a to-do list a mile long to tackle once the kids are asleep: laundry, bills, catching up on e-mails. "Parents tend to push, push, push until the minute they fall into bed, but if you're having trouble sleeping, that's not a good idea," says Dr. Silberman, author of The Insomnia Workbook. Try to go to bed at the same time every night, and spend the hour beforehand reading, talking to your partner, or listening to soothing music. Avoid TV; it can get your mind going, and if the screen is too close the light will interfere with you falling asleep.
2. Put a white-noise machine in your baby's room. (Just don't have it on too loud.) For starters, it'll help your baby sleep, says chiropractor Robert Oexman, D.C., director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Joplin, Missouri. "But the real reason I advise this is that it masks the little noises they hear on the monitor of their baby sighing or rolling over in his crib. That's a wonderful thing."
3. Curb screen time. Using a tablet, a computer, or a mobile phone within an hour of bed can throw off your circadian rhythms. If you must use a gadget, a recent Mayo Clinic study found that lowering the brightness and holding it at least 14 inches from your face will reduce its effect on your sleep. Another option, a blue-light filter to fit over your screen.
4. Try this yoga pose. The viparita karani, or legs-up-the-wall, pose puts the mind and body into a state of deep calm, says Juliana Mitchell, a yoga teacher in New York City. Before bed, lie on your back on the floor, and then extend your legs and rest them straight up against a wall. Stay in the position for five to 20 minutes with your eyes closed, noticing your breathing. (Avoid this pose if you have untreated high blood pressure, a propensity for blood clots, glaucoma, or other ocular issues.)
5. Eliminate all sources of light. Even a small amount suppresses the release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin and increases alertness for up to 90 minutes, research shows. Recent studies have found that the blue-wavelength light produced by electronic devices and many kinds of energy-efficient lightbulbs is especially disruptive. The glow of a TV screen, a phone, an alarm clock, or a baby monitor can all interfere with your snooze.
6. Use night-lights. "If you have to feed the baby or go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, never turn on the lights," says Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., founder of TheSleepDoctor.com and a clinical psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona, who specializes in sleep. "Light tells your brain to stop producing melatonin, so it will be much harder to get back to sleep." Use a dim night-light or one that filters out the blue wavelength like those at lowbluelights.com.
7. Try "banana tea." Dr. Breus, who has researched the links between diet and sleep, is a fan of this unusual drink. "Take a banana in its peel, cut off the top and bottom, put it in boiling water for three minutes and then put the hot water through a sieve," he says. "You get three or four times more magnesium from drinking this than from just eating a banana, and it's very calming." While banana tea hasn't been studied, a study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences found that taking 500mg of magnesium daily significantly improved sleep quality and the ability to fall asleep.
8. Eat dinner early. Many parents of young children put the kids to bed and then eat their evening meal on their own, but Dr. Breus says that's a no-no. Eating within two hours of bedtime can cause sleep-disturbing indigestion, he says. "It's better to have a light dinner along with your kids and then a 250-calorie snack a little later."
9. Skip that glass of wine. Yes, alcohol will help you hit the pillow faster, but it will interrupt your sleep later in the night as your body metabolizes it. Alcohol is also a diuretic, so you may wake up because you feel dehydrated. If you do have wine with dinner, make sure you have a glass of water too.
10. Avoid caffeine. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that having caffeine within six hours of bed had a significant disruptive effect on sleep. Remember that green tea, chocolate, and even decaf coffee all contain caffeine, as do medications such as Anacin, Excedrin, and Midol.
11. Distract yourself. Mental exercises can work because they force you to think about something besides what's bothering you. You might try remembering all the words of a song, or use Dr. Breus's favorite technique, counting backward by 3s from 300. "It's mathematically complicated enough that you really can't think of anything else," he explains, "and it's boring enough to put you out."
8 More Tips to Help You Sleep
12. Write down what's on your mind. You're lying in bed and can't stop thinking about your little one's problems at school, a big work project, or your unending to-do list. Sound familiar? "Parents are so busy during the day that they don't have time to worry, and when they're lying in bed at night it all comes up," Dr. Silberman says. So jot down what's worrying you, and next to each concern, write at least one solution, even if it's "I'll call the doctor tomorrow at noon." "A lot of sleeplessness comes because you don't have a plan," Dr. Breus says.
13. Do a relaxation exercise. Download an app with a guided meditation that will have you relax one muscle at a time, starting with your toes; listen to it just before bed. (Try "Relax With Andrew Johnson Lite," free for iPad, iPhone, and Android.) Or picture yourself in a place you love and recall how it felt, smelled, and sounded.
14. Take care of yourself. Soaking in the tub for 30 minutes before bed will raise your body temp, and the drop that begins afterward will signal to your body that t's time to go to sleep, experts say. Sasha Hampton, of Orlando, says she often had trouble sleeping after her three boys were born. She now takes a hot bath or shower every night, gives herself a mini facial, and even dances a bit. (A 2013 NSF poll found that exercising at any time of day, even just before bed, helps sleep quality.) "I was a dancer before I had kids," she says, "so this reconnects me to that time when I didn't have to worry so much, and I sleep way better now."
15. Get out of bed. If you've been tossing and turning for more than 20 minutes, stop trying to will yourself to drift off. Just get up. "It's important to break any association between going to bed and not being able to sleep," says Amy Wolfson, Ph.D., a psychologist and vice president of academic affairs at Loyola University in Baltimore. Do something that's not too stimulating, like starting a book you've already read. Go back to bed as soon as you feel drowsy.
16. If you use a clock, turn it around. When Paula Stephens, a mother of three in Littleton, Colorado, would wake up at night, her first thought was always, "Oh my God, look what time it is" and then she'd panic about how little sleep she was getting. So she moved the clock and started using the alarm on her phone, which she places out of sight. "Now when I wake up, I can usually just roll over and go back to sleep."
17. Solve snoring problems. If you or your partner snores, try different sleep positions and talk to your doctor about getting tested for sleep apnea. In the meantime, invest in a good pair of ear plugs, a fan, or a white-noise machine.
18. No pillow talk. Your bed should be reserved for sleep and sex only. "It's not the place to have the discussion about your child's issues at school," says Dr. Breus. "You may get emotional and that will affect your ability to go to sleep. Save those types of conversations for the couch, before lights-out."
19. Get your own bed linens. If you're among the lucky ones who have a covers-hog for a bedmate, Dr. Oexman recommends a very practical solution: Each of you should have a separate twin-size flat sheet and blanket underneath a bedspread that you can pull over the top when you make the bed. "Not only does it prevent you both from tugging and pulling on blankets all night, but it solves issues with preferring different temperatures," Dr. Oexman insists. "I've had a lot of couples call me later on and say, 'Wow, you saved our marriage.'"
Always talk to your doctor before self-medicating, since there may be a larger problem to address.
Still Can't Sleep?
If you've tried the steps above and continue to have trouble sleeping three or more nights a week, seek out a sleep doctor or a sleep psychologist, who may recommend one of these options:
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Parents magazine.
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