By: Emily Neilsen
Sleep has always been important to me. I grew up in a house where everyone’s first question in the morning was, “How’d you sleep?” In our home, naps were regularly taken and rest was often prioritized over other needs or wants. As an adult, not much has changed for me. So I was not just a little surprised to learn that the sleep habits I had developed as an adult were to blame for my less-than-perfect sleep patterns through the night.
This all came to a head about 2 years ago, when I was six months into parenthood. I was exhausted. There was a depth to my tiredness that felt almost irreversible. Well-intentioned friends and family noticed and provided assurance and advice: Buy an espresso maker! Rest when the baby rests! Don’t worry: the baby will start sleeping much more soundly soon! But the truth was that the baby was a great sleeper, who was often down for 8- to 11-hour stretches. It was me who was tossing and turning.
Around this time, a friend suggested I start following a sleep hygiene routine. I had never heard the term before, but I quickly learned that if sleep was my goal, I had to do some research and face the problem intentionally. Along the way, I came across a book that provided a paradigm shift for me: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, Ph.D.
Walker covers a host of topics related to sleep, but most powerfully for me, he speaks to the health consequences and risks of failing to sleep enough. In short, sleep impacts virtually every measurable health outcome. Failing to sleep enough (defined as 7 or more hours a night) doubles an individual’s risk of developing cancer, increases the incidence of Alzheimer’s, shortens one’s lifespan, increases the likelihood of developing Type 2 Diabetes, and increases all psychiatric illnesses, including anxiety and depression. Additionally, in recent years, drivers impaired by lack of sleep caused more vehicle accidents than those impaired by drugs and alcohol combined. For these reasons, along with others, the World Health Organization has declared a sleep loss epidemic in developed nations.
While I had known that sleep was important, I had never known that my survival was so dependent on getting so much sleep, consistently. Sleep, it was becoming clear to me, is incredibly serious business. So, how can we best ensure a good night’s rest? Experts recommend developing strong “sleep hygiene”, or habits that are conducive to regularly sleeping well. Below is a list of behaviors that promote good sleep:
1. Avoid or limit caffeine, alcohol, and other substances that interfere with sleep. Some resources recommend avoiding caffeine after noon and giving your body plenty of time to digest alcohol before going to sleep.
2. Establish a consistent bedtime routine and head to bed around the same time every night (even on weekends).
3. Set boundaries around screen time and limit blue light exposure in the hours leading up to bedtime.
4. Make your bedroom a place of rest – keep the bedroom dark and the temperature comfortable. Avoid doing work or watching TV in the bedroom.
5. Get outside and move during the day. Regular exposure to sunlight (even on cloudy days) and as little as 10 minutes a day of exercise positively impacts sleep cycles.
6. If you are a nighttime clock watcher or phone checker, take both out of the room.
7. Stay calm when you can’t sleep. Limit your awake time in bed to 10-20 minutes. If you can’t fall asleep (or back to sleep), do something else relaxing somewhere else in your house.
8. Experiment and be patient. Different approaches work for different people and finding the right mix of behavioral changes may take some time.
Tips adapted from:
Emily Neilsen is a mother and educator, who loves asking big questions, digging in the soil, swimming in natural bodies of water, and playing outdoors. She is a 500-hour and Prenatal certified yoga instructor. Emily currently plans arts & cultural events and reading initiatives, and works with first-year students at Northern Vermont University-Johnson. She cares deeply about health and believes mental health, movement, and diet play essential roles in wellness. Emily lives with her husband and 2-year-old, as well as a husky and a calico cat in Hyde Park, VT.