Updated: Apr 6, 2022
By Rima Zabian, PsyD
AWARE Early Childhood Deputy Director
"I haven't slept for 10 days, because that would be too long."
Sleep is like having an internal superhero. A blanket as a cape, Zzzzz’s on her costume and a mask so disguising that we often cannot recognize her, or frankly, find her at night. She has superpowers too: she can bust up stress, slow your breathing and reduce your heart rate and blood pressure. She even can lower your weight and make you smarter. How do you know that your sleep quality isn’t working for your body and mind? Well, do you forget where your keys are? Are you confused about which key goes to what door? Do you think you don’t even need a key, and you can just kick down a door? Are you asking yourself right now, what was the question again? Our body and mind give us remarkable feedback about sleep quality. You notice that you have more colds, for example. Your reactions are… slower. You are hungry like a bar-tailed godwit bird that eats double its weight to fly 10 days nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand. What can we do to get more and deeper sleep?
Keep your room cool. Lower the A/C, open a window (my favorite), take electronics that give off heat out of your bedroom and close your blinds during the day. If you wake up in the middle of the night, you can stick your feet out from under your cozy bedspread. This tip works better without socks. Let those gnarly hammertoes get some air! Get curious about your temperature at night and try different gadgets. There are electric heating blankets, cooling blankets, even blankets with Zzzzz’s on them. Staying cool at night is also a reason to take a warm shower before bed. (Note: Not a hot shower, we are trying to cool down your room.) Your body will rapidly cool down when you get out of the shower, unless you wear a cape.
Avoid Your Phone
You cannot shine a light in the sky to summon Zzzzz’s because light of any kind is disruptive. You have an internal 24-hour clock that follows the sun’s patterns. Your brain perceives light and tells you to stay awake. This tip holds true with all artificial light. Your brain cannot effectively transition between the four stages of sleep, all of which are really important for your well-being. Instagram will be there in the morning. Remember, all those images of people sleeping peacefully are fake anyway.
Stay in Bed
Honestly, who hasn’t heard the advice that if you cannot sleep you should get up and do something out of your bedroom until you feel tired again? This is bonkers. Getting up will elevate your heart rate and make it even harder to fall asleep. Try some relaxing techniques in bed like “box breathing,” which was developed by Navy Seals. (If Navy Seals do it, it must work because they can do anything!) Imagine a box with four equal sides: breathe for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, breath out for four seconds, and hold your breath for four seconds. This tip does not apply if you need to go to the bathroom. Seriously, get up for that!
Get Enough Sleep
“I can perform at a high-level sleeping only three to four hours a night,” says the Uberbro. He also breathes fire, drinks gallons of caffeine a day and is a CEO of 10 companies. Here is a secret: no one can tell you how much sleep to get. Eight hours a night? Seven to nine hours a night? That number is an average that scientific research backs. But you are the best expert on how much sleep your body needs. Only you can set the right sleep targets and plan bedtimes. Try working backward from what you need to accomplish in the mornings and the rest of the day. What does your lifestyle demand? You aren’t going to be able to sleep well if you aren’t productive, healthy and engaged throughout your day.
Create and Follow A Sleep Ritual
“Watch TV, surf the internet, check your email or play video games right before bed.” No one would give this advice to anyone! “Find your oasis and chill.” I’m from Montana, and I don’t even know what an oasis is. But I do know that a ritual is simply a series of small actions in a particular order. Authors desperate for you to buy their books call them things like “tiny habits” or “atomic habits.” It doesn’t matter what we call them. Again, you need to get curious about yourself and experiment to find something that works for you. Set an intention: I am going to commit to a sleep ritual no matter how I’m feeling in the moment. Here is an example in a precise order: two hours before bed I will turn off all electronics. I will hug and tell the people in my home how grateful I am for them. I will drink magnesium tea (I’m weird). The list journal comes out, and I go bananas. I take care of my personal hygiene (no more details: I’m a private person). I will practice meditation or box breathing. I conclude by listening to something super chill, and I fall asleep.
Improve Your Sleep Environment
Dig out your Bed, Bath, and Beyond coupons because you are going shopping! Just kidding. Less is more. Take out anything from your bedroom that is distracting or doesn’t prioritize sleep. Go Zen. Feng Shui. Cowboy. Call it whatever you want. Here’s what is really important: the temperature of the room, noise, light and your mattress and bedding. You are the expert on your best sleep environment. Anyone else is just trying to get you to buy things. Imagine a hot room, metal music, disco lights and a nail bed. That is the Uberbro’s sleep environment, not yours. Act like a scientist and pick one thing to experiment with each week. Discover the perfect cool temperature for your room. Find out whether white noise or a ceiling fan or total silence makes you sleep better. Darkness…that one is easy. You want to make the room as dark as possible so that you can still go to the bathroom in the middle of the night without tripping on kids’ toys. Mattresses can be foamy, latex, springy, hard or nails. Soft or firm - only you know which one is best for you. Just keep everything really clean. Vacuum your carpet and wash your bedding regularly unless you want to share your space with dust mites. Scented oils, perhaps? This is one of the cowboy’s favorite tricks.
Sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, etc. require treatment by a medical professional. Be sure to talk to them if you continue to struggle with sleep. It is no joke. Zzzzz’s is the self-less hero, and she is ready to help!