I spend most of my time giving sleep tips for children aged under 6, but I frequently have parents asking for suggestions of how they can improve their sleep too.
Below are my sleep tips which are suitable for all adults to follow. However, these are particularly relevant to parents of poor sleepers, who find their own sleep limited and fragmented by their child’s sleep challenges.
I’ve also included a section on Sleep Anxiety, which is increasingly common amongst parents of young children experiencing poor sleep. Although this section is designed to help your family’s sleep in a holistic manner, it in no way constitutes medical advice and support.
Sleep Tips for Parents
- Set bedtime and waketime – It sounds obvious but one of the most important anchors of the body clock is your wake-up time and bedtime. These two times need to be as consistent as possible. Having a weekend lie in is a lovely idea, but it has been likened to giving yourself jet lag each week as your body tries to regulate your circadian rhythm again. Instead of a lie in, try an early night, as this won’t disrupt your circadian rhythm so much and will give you more time in deep restorative sleep cycles.
- A bedtime routine! – Just as much as your child needs a bedtime routine so do you! A short simple routine, 30 minutes before bedtime, will cue your brain that it’s time for sleep and provide a good opportunity to relax. Try not to go straight from the hustle and bustle of the day and drop into bed. Include a couple of relaxing steps in between such as mindfulness, listening to music, or reading a book. There are plenty of examples at the end of this article for you to try.
- Avoid screens before bed – (much easier said than done and I’m certainly guilty of this one!) Most screens emit blue light, which disrupts your natural production of melatonin (the sleep hormone). By avoiding screen time for 30 minutes to an hour before bed, and instead selecting dim home lighting, you can encourage melatonin levels to rise and make falling asleep easier. Particularly avoid using screens in the bedroom, as this space should only be for relaxation and sleep – so no more ordering from Amazon in bed at 11pm!
- Create a sleep friendly bedroom – Think about whether your bedroom is a good sleeping environment? Is it your Sleep Sanctuary? You need it to be dark, cool, quiet and comfortable. It might be worth getting thicker curtains, black out blinds, a blanket or a hot water bottle. Perhaps it’s time to turn the mattress, change the duvet thickness, or buy new pillows? Your bedroom should not be too hot or too cold, to aid falling asleep and staying asleep through temperature drops in the early hours of the night.
- Exercise – As a parent there is often limited opportunity to take part in exercise, but it has a big effect on your health, BMI and quality of sleep. Try to take part in 60 minutes of exercise each day such as walking, running, dancing or aerobics. If you can do this in the daylight it has an even bigger impact on your sleep patterns. However, try to avoid exercise in the hour before bed, as the adrenaline produced by exercise can make falling asleep more difficult.
- Healthy diet – We all know that diet is important so review whether you are taking in enough well-balanced meals? Try to avoid high fat and refined carbohydrates in the evening meal and instead opt for complex carbohydrates, proteins, and plenty of vegetables to balance blood sugar. Too little or too much food right before bedtime will cause an overfull or an empty stomach that may prevent comfortable sleep.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol – Tea, coffee, cola, energy drinks and even chocolate are all high in stimulating caffeine which can make falling asleep and staying asleep harder. Try to avoid them in the 4 hours before bed (yes – I know!). If you enjoy an alcoholic drink in the evening, it may make you feel more sleepy and make it easier to drop off, but it actually reduces the quality of your overall sleep, causes more night wakes, and may cause you to wake for the toilet.
- Clear you mind – If there is something troubling you or crowding your thoughts and making it harder to fall asleep, try to clear your mind before bedtime. Try talking to someone, writing a list, or keeping a journal before you go to bed. I like to suggest Thought Tickets. To do this, write down a thought, worry or job that is playing on your mind. Then next to it write down a time that you will do this or think about it. For example, I might write down, collect parcel on Tuesday, or, think about ways to fix the roof tomorrow at 10am. Then you keep the ticket and don’t think about the job or worry until the allotted time.
The impact of anxiety on sleep
Anxiety is increasingly common in adults, and particularly in parents where their child or children don’t sleep well. It can be very easy to blame ourselves for our child’s sleep challenges and to lie awake worrying about when they will next wake, or to find it difficult to fall asleep again after resettling them.
Anxiety changes the way in which we actually sleep, making it harder to fall asleep at bedtime and spending more time in lighter dream sleep (REM sleep). These changes mean that you can often continue to feel tired the next day, even after you have had a reasonable night’s sleep.
If you are having particular difficulty in falling asleep, at bedtime or in the night, it can lead to a cycle of worry which makes falling asleep even harder, leading to poorer quality sleep, and further worry. Here are some tips to help reduce anxiety and improve your sleep.
Ways to manage anxiety and improve sleep
- Spend time exposed to bright light in the morning – bright light stimulates the retina, boosts serotonin and suppresses melatonin – this will improve your mood and regulate your body clock
- Think even more carefully about your diet. For your evening meal, try to eat at a sensible time and have complex carbohydrates which boost serotonin, and protein to balance your blood sugar. Focus on drinking more water as dehydration can worsen anxiety, and limit caffeine and alcohol intake as they can actually cause anxiety and affect sleep.
- Have a go at Mindfulness, progressive relaxation or guided meditation – there are lots of great free ones available on You Tube. You could also try Yoga or Pilates to mobilise, calm and soothe the body
- Become really disciplined at writing list, journaling or making worry slips to calm your mind before bed
- Experiment with Essential oils such as Frankincense, Clary Sage, Douglas Fir, Vetiver, Chamomile, Lavender, and Geranium which are all helpful to improve mood, reduce anxiety and aid relaxation. A quick and easy product that I love is the Planet Spa Aromatherapy Pillow Mist from Avon. It’s easy to get hold of, very affordable, and simple to use for those not familiar with blending essential oils.
- Find ways to release the feel-good hormone Oxytocin such as touch, massage, pleasant smells, music, dance, food, cuddling, or sexual intimacy.
- Seek support from your family, friends or support network – this can be having someone to talk to, discuss particular problems, or finding someone to ease the load by helping out with tasks or childcare
- Acknowledge your state of mind and thoughts – consider what is causing your anxiety, what level you feel it is at, whether you have taken steps to ease these feelings, and how you can change the feelings that you are having.
- Be kind to yourself and invest in self-care – this is particularly hard to do when you have small children and feel anxious but as the saying goes ‘you cannot pour from an empty cup’. Make a small amount of time to look after yourself in even the smallest ways. Know that by caring for yourself, you will improve your ability to parent how you want to.
You may also like to think about
- Outsourcing any tasks or jobs that can be such as hiring a cleaner, having shopping delivered, or asking a friend to look after your child for an hour
- Talking to your GP
- Counselling, or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
Rachael, The Sleep Sanctuary
The Sleep Sanctuary is an online Children’s Sleep Consultancy, helping tired parent’s to improve their child’s sleep and live healthier, happier lives.