I have had many periods of sleep deprivation during my life, including eight months with my first child; three with my second; a very stressful period at University; living with noisy neighbours and finally marrying a snorer!
Sleep deprivation is used as a method of torture. It leads to mental illness, anxiety and physical exhaustion. It was a contributing factor to my diagnosis of post-natal depression.
Looking back, I know that I got away lightly with my kids' sleeping patterns and that some parents suffer years of disturbed sleep with their children, but at the time it was hell. With my first child we had to exercise 'tough love' and leave him to cry it out. The first night we resolved to stay out of his room, knowing that he didn't need anything from us, he screamed with every outward breath for eight hours solidly. Each subsequent night the screams subsided a little, until by the end of the week, he had accepted that we were not coming and slept for 12 blissful hours. We learnt valuable lessons during that time and my second child benefitted from them.
At University I went through a stressful time in my first year - a combination of being away from home, trying to make new friends in a big city and struggling with one of my chosen subjects of study - economics. My work was suffering, so I went to the tutor who advised me to read my economics books in bed to dull me into sleep. That was great advice and worked a treat.
In my twenties I bought a beautiful flat with my sister. It overlooked a main road, so we invested in some secondary glazing. The traffic noise didn't bother me that much, I think partly because I had no control over it.
Then the neighbours moved in downstairs. I've talked about this in a previous post so I won't go into detail, but no amount of sound proofing could keep out the noise of their 3am mid-week parties, or midnight floor-sanding. I knew we had to move on when I realised I dreaded going to bed. One hour of sleep followed by several hours staring at the ceiling with my heart pounding hard in my chest, feeling the anger welling up... it just had to stop.
Years later I married a snorer - worse than that actually, Steve had sleep apnoea - which is a condition that made him stop breathing and have episodes where he woke up from his deep sleep in order to start breathing again. So when he wasn't snoring, he wasn't breathing. I knew about sleep apnoea having had a client who had done some research into it when I was working in PR, so I immediately recognised the symptoms (which are loud snoring, followed by what sounds like death, followed by a deep gasp for breath).
In the months leading up to his visit to a sleep clinic, I struggled with various types of ear plugs, made him wear snoring strips and tried lots of other gadgets, but most evenings he just had to sleep in the spare room.
The sleep test results showed that he'd been having on average 80 episodes every hour, putting enormous pressure on his heart and making him lethargic. He was given a machine which blows air into his nose to help him breathe. Subsequently he had his tonsils and adenoids out (as has one of my kids for the same reason).
So now that he has a hollow head, his apnoea has gone. But he still snores.
So to end, here are my top tips for a good night's sleep:
1. Exercise: even if all you can manage is getting off the bus a stop early, or parking the car a block further away from the office, a brisk 15 minute walk which gets the blood pumping a bit faster can work wonders.
2. Cut down on caffeine. I drink a lot of tea, and usually one cup of strong coffee per day, but after 6pm there's an embargo on caffeine. Even the slightest whiff of caffeine in the evening makes my heart race and raises my blood pressure. The anticipation of being given a caffeinated brew by accident is ever present and fills me with fear of a sleepless night ahead.
3. At the risk of sounding like an old nag, eating a heavy meal after 8pm is a sleep-killer. Heavily salted or spicy food has me gasping for water at 3am. Your body needs at least 3 hours to digest and wind down. If you get hungry before bedtime there are foods that help to promote a good night's sleep:
- Nuts, which provide both protein and healthy fat and will fill you up quickly;
- Popcorn contains the hormone serotonin which helps you to relax. It's low in calories if you don't smother it in butter or sugar and you can snack on it slowly throughout the evening;
- Bananas contain melatonin, which is a hormone our body produces to help us sleep. Melatonin production slows down in old age which is why older people need so little sleep.
- Oats are a good snack as they are high in fibre and the carbohydrates will fill you up. Just don't overdo it, otherwise the indigestion will keep you tossing and turning.
4. Turn off the gadgets. I am guilty of snuggling up in bed with an unchallenging programme on the TV. But I do enjoy listening to a panel show or comedy on Radio 4 (via the iPlayer) and slowly drifting off to sleep before it finishes. I've read that it is a mistake to have the TV or iPad on before bedtime as light from the screens suppresses melatonin production, as well as stimulating the mind.
5. Manage your stress levels. I have found a few tips to manage my stress over the years. I keep a notepad by the bed to write down any chores/revelations/people I need to phone that occur to me in bed. This seems to stop them swirling around in my thoughts and makes me feel positive about ticking them off my list the next day. I practice deep breathing to take my mind off whatever is bothering me. If I focus purely on the activity of breathing deeply in and out, my mind will stop going off in a dozen different directions and sleep will follow shortly. The most upsetting type of late night stress, is when you're fretting about not being asleep! This is just a viscious circle. Try to stop fidgeting, find a comfortable position and remain there, breathing deeply. Fight the urge to get up and watch a film, sleep should eventually come if you practice absolute stillness.
6. And finally: If your partner snores, find a good set of comfortable ear plugs. I did manage to get a bespoke pair made and you can read all about that on the blog, by following this link.
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