8 things that get me through the night

by Katrina on November 7, 2011

Cross-posted from The Huffington Post

I have never been a great sleeper — it takes me a long time to fall asleep, and I wake easily. Before kids, I managed the random bout of insomnia by sleeping in the next day, or taking a nap on the weekend. But when I had kids, it was like someone with a bad sense of direction becoming a taxi driver. My minor flaw became the dominant theme of my life.

A story in the New York Times this Friday about working moms and their sleep problems got me thinking about my own. Because, as the author points out, women’s sleep problems may start when they have their first child, but they don’t end there.

One of the cruel jokes of motherhood is that the sleeplessness of pregnancy, followed by the sleeplessness generated by an infant (a period in which a staggering — truly — 84 percent of women experience insomnia), is not followed by a makeup period of rest. It is merely the setup for what can become a permanent modus operandi.

I expected to slog through the early months with an infant, bleary-eyed from the nighttime nursing and diaper changes. But eventually, my kids learned to use the potty and sleep in their own beds, often without waking me.

And yet, I still wake up when I heard one of them cough from the next room, or murmur in their sleep. And sometimes, for no apparent reason at all, my eyes just pop open at 3 a.m. Then my mind starts racing with all the things I have to do the next day. As I become more awake, I panic about the fact that I’m still awake. I have to get some sleep. If I don’t sleep I’ll be a wreck tomorrow. Which only makes the situation worse, of course.

According to the story, I’m not alone in this. About 3 out of 10 women use some form of sleep aid a few times a week or more, and we’re twice as likely as men to use prescription aids. The author says our problem is not that our children keep us awake, but that we do. So why won’t we sleep? Are we neurotic? Are we perfectionists? Are we doing something wrong?

Dr. Meir Kryger, director of sleep medicine research and education at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, Conn., said women “are really paying the price in sleep for their current role in society.” Given their often-dueling roles as both a breadwinner and primary caregiver, “they have way more problems with insomnia.”

Bingo. There is so much pressure to be on at work, and on again at home. There are so many absurd details in our heads and so little time to process through them. (Examples from my own racing 2 a.m. thoughts: Did I send the letter to the parents about that preschool thing? Did I send that important email to my client? I hope he took it the right way; it’s so easy to offend people on email…Why hasn’t the city come to pick up the dead raccoon on the other side of our back fence? It’s disgusting…Oh, jeez, I forgot to make the orthodontist appointment for Ruby again…)

As you may have guessed, I’m one of those women who has “prescription sleep aids,” but I’m careful not to take them every night. Since my daughter was born, eight years ago, I’ve slowly cobbled together a group of coping mechanisms to get me through the night.

  • No sugar
    Sugar before bed makes it hard for me to settle down, and then when I do, it gives me wacky, psychedelic dreams and I wake up exhausted. I’ve had to give up my love of New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream, which, frankly, is a good thing.
  • No alcohol
    Alcohol helps me fall asleep, but its cruel prank is it wakes me up three hours later. Alcohol breaking down into sugar while you sleep, and becomes a stimulant, and I guess as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more sensitive to it. Even one glass of wine will have me zinging awake at 3 a.m. That’s been harder to give up than the ice cream.
  • No work
    If I work past 9 or 10 pm, I get all wired and it’s hard to rest. If I need to work late, I’ll often go to bed early and get up at 5 a.m. to finish instead.
  • Read paper, not a screen
    Reading distracts me from the details of my day and settles my brain before sleep. But if I read on my iPad, the light from the screen wakes me up, so if I’m having trouble settling down, I switch to an old-fashioned book or magazine. I also have to be careful about what I read. No thrillers, no murders, no global warming, and ideally, nothing work-related.
  • Exercise
    Either cardio exercise or yoga early in the day if I can fit it in — both help me sleep better at night.
  • 3 counts in, 6 counts out
    Sometimes, when I wake up at 3 a.m. and I know I’m awake, I can lull myself back to sleep my focusing on my breath. Here’s the trick: The out breath should be twice as long as the in-breath, and I have to really concentrate on relaxing during the out breath. This simple technique stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system; the calming part of your nervous system.
  • Self-hypnosis
    I’m a big fan of the Andrew Johnson self-hypnosis apps for the iPhone. There’s one specifically designed to help you fall asleep, and others on a range of topics, from letting go of worries, being a positive thinker, and quitting smoking. He has the most wonderful Scottish brogue that just purrs me into Dreamland.
  • Melatonin
    About once a week I use a Melatonin spray that goes under the tongue to help it work faster. This is the one that was recommended to me by a naturopath. If I don’t have Melatonin, I sometimes use Benadryl.

What about you? What gets you through the night?

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Arnebya

I’m the opposite with regard to sleep. I can sleep anywhere, any time of day, for extended periods of time. Not just a nap. I go to sleep like it’s bedtime — in the middle of the day. I could sleep under my desk. I fall asleep in the car like the kids. I genuinely crave it (much to the detriment of my husband’s sex life). I have found that alcohol does make me so relaxed that I fall asleep even easier, but it does give me crazy dreams. When the kids were infants I was a light sleeper. But now? Um, no. Daddy gets up and I snooze on unless there’s a need for me to join the awake party.

What I would like is to find a way to NOT want so much sleep. I am tired. All the time. I want to be energetic, active, not run down (which is how I feel all the time, especially when everyone else is running full speed and I’m fighting the urge to crawl into bed. I’ve had all sorts of bloodwork done to determine a cause for my energy level and nothing. So for now, I just try not to have my kids fill out homework sheets about their home life with “mommy sleeps a lot.”

Reply

Katrina

I’m jealous of your ability to sleep so well, but I can see how it could be a drag to NEED all that sleep. I have to say, I’m been doing this “green smoothie” thing lately, and it is seriously improving my energy level. You can google it — there are tons of blogs about it. I’m not doing the formal program, just trying to get raw greens into my smoothie every morning. Feels great.

Reply

Tricia

I suffered with insomnia my whole life – I remember lying awake trying to get to sleep as a young child! It was the very worst in college, but after I graduated I beat it. I haven’t had insomnia in years and I am both pregnant and have a toddler.

I think the key was that I taught my brain that bedtime was not for thinking. It took a lot of years, but now I do my thinking during the day – and if “remembers” hit me at night, I get up right away and write them down. I also spend time each evening winding down from the day. I used to have to start winding down 2 hours before bed, now I can wind down in 15 – 30 minutes. Another tool that helps me sometimes is to read or do logic puzzles right before bed because it gets my mind off of my busy life.

Reply

Logan

I’m kind of flabbergasted that 84% of women have insomnia! That’s actually seems really weird. You really think it’s just women are doing too much? 84%? I wonder what else it could be. . . maybe some sort of hormonal imbalance due to chemicals in the environment? Or something else?

I’m with Arnebya in the I sleep too much category, only I don’t think it’s a problem. :) Maybe people need to take their cues from Scarlett O’Hara “tomorrow is another day, I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Always works for me.

Reply

Katrina

I think the 84% referred to women who have INFANTS. I’m surprised it’s not 94%…

Reply

momfof2

excercise, exercise, exercise – i’ve been amazed that since i’ve started exercising more, i don’t have the 2 or 3am wakeup – i sleep through the night. what a difference! that and earplugs – strange that i’ve started needing earplugs since i had kids – if i don’t wear them, i wake up at any little sound. so now i let my husband be ‘on duty’ at night if there are cry-outs (though, most often, i still seem to hear the cry-outs w/ earplugs…i guess we’re just inately connected to those kids).

Reply

nomi rachel

great post Katrina! now add international travel and various time zones into the mix. sigh! im recently back from London and between the jet lag and day light savings I went from barely sleeping and working crazy hours there, to coming home and crashing with my kids every night at 9. however, if i do get up at 3 am – i try and force myself to go back to sleep at least till 5 or so before getting up to work. actually this early morning quiet is so nice….. but i absolutely believe the statistics – i’ve never slept the same since i’ve had kids. i even hear the cat jump off the bed in the middle of the night – super sonic mama ears? your suggestions for easing sleep are great! thanks for sharing!

Reply

stefa

reading your list of ways to sleep through the night felt like looking in the mirror. I’ve never been a great sleeper either – but during the first few months of Edie’s life (now 10 months old), i was amazed at my ability to sleep at almost anytime that I had a few moments. that was clearly out of sheer exhaustion – now that I’m passed that stage, I’m back to middle of the night and early morning wake ups – it’s rare that i make it past 5:30 a.m. even though Edie sleeps until 7 or 7:30. it feels like torture laying in bed awake when she is sleeping! i know i should get up and do some yoga instead of tossing and turning but i often feel too tired to do so – a vicious cycle. the one thing on your list that I haven’t tried is Melatonin. the one additional thing on my list is a sleep aid given to me by my homeopath – it helps me to get to sleep but i still seem to be waking up too early…..

Reply

Katrina

Melatonin’s been an over-the-counter miracle for me. What’s the name of the homepathic one you take?

Reply

Stef

Hmmmm…I can’t remember what’s in the homeopathic remedy I take. My homeopath made it up specially for me. It’s a mix of different remedies and the bottle just says “sleep”….

Reply

Logan

OK, I was skeptical about the insomnia/child link but I had the opportunity to quiz some moms about it tonight at a party and it seemed like most I talked to agreed to having persistent problems sleeping since first getting prego. I don’t know. I really just don’t relate, I sleep harder than ever. It was funny how this one woman practically said verbatim what you said about the 2am list that runs through her head.

Reply

Katrina

You, my dear, must have a super power. I hope you hang on to that ability to sleep…Was just talking with a friend last night who’s developed a new form of insomnia mixed with sleep paralysis. She’s under a lot of work/mommy stress. Yuk. Being able to just sleep when you can is such a blessing.

Reply

Leslie

I can’t sleep either but for me it started with a divorce a few years before I had a kid. I could not sleep at all for a couple of weeks which triggered a seizure that got me to the doctor for help. After not being able to sleep for two years without prescription meds, I stopped taking them when I found out I was pregnant. Pregnancy and having an infant were actually a brief reprieve for me, and I could sleep pretty much anytime I was still. When my child started sleeping through the night reliably at 18 months, my insomnia/anxiety returned and I am back on sleeping pills. Even with meds a great night for me is only 7 hours of sleep.

Reply

Genevieve Ferraro

Just found your blog. Love it!!! Love that you don’t post often, because that’s the real world and love that you talk about the pressures of work and raising kids. I have two boys 17 and 22. I’m also the bread winner since my husband was laid-off three years ago. Sometimes, the stress is crushing. Other times, I feel like a hero for keeping my family together. There are moments my kids hate me; I expect them to earn a living so they call me the dreamcrusher, but strangely, that is working out OK. They both have jobs during the year and my oldest is graduating from University of Wisconsin with a double major in English and NeuroScience. He will be a high school Biology teacher for two years with Teach for America, then is going to Med School. My youngest has a miserable GPA, but tremendous art talent and will hopefully be going to college on an art scholarship. He has already received his first scholarship package. Not sure how he will make a living, but he plans on double majoring in art and business. If art pays for college, that’s fine with me. And I haven’t divorced my husband. As far as I’m concerned, surviving is success! Thanks for listening. So glad you have this blog. Genevieve

Reply

Rachel

I’ve always been an insomniac, and more so after having a baby. Finally have found a few things that help…

exercise in the morning (early)….by the time the long day of work and then mothering is over, I’m exhausted and fall asleep more quickly

ear plugs and eye mask. I have to trust that my husband will hear the little one and wake me up if she’s really up. But these two things help me sleep SO much better.

unisom on Sunday nights if nothing else works, which are historically my worst sleep nights thinking of the week ahead…

Reply

Katrina

I’ve never even heard of unisom. It doesn’t give you weird dreams?

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: