Woman First

Better Approaches to 6 Sleep-Stealing Habits

by Laura Flynn McCarthy

This article originally appeared in Parenting magazine.

You are how you sleep. It’s the one-third of your life that most affects the two others. Of course when your kids are young and you need lots of energy to get through the day, getting a good night’s rest can be challenging.

If you’re not sleeping well, you’re not alone:

Two-thirds of women report symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week.

The average woman older than age 30 sleeps only six hours and 41 minutes a night. No doubt, moms of babies or toddlers are lucky to get that much!

As a mom, some of the things you do in the name of good parenting can compromise your sleep. Here are some common sleep habits moms can fall into, and ways to alter them so you can sleep like a baby, or, even better, like a well-rested adult.

Time To Relax
Habit: Trying to get everything done after the kids go to bed. “As soon as my daughters are tucked in at eight, I clean, iron, pay the bills, and so on,” says Mercedes Gray, a mom of three. Instead of winding down before her own bedtime, she speeds up. By 11pm, Gray says, “I’m so keyed up that it takes me a while to fall asleep.”

A better approach: Don’t use all of your free time to multitask. Just as your child needs a bedtime routine that settles her down for the night, so do you. “Thirty to sixty minutes before your bedtime, begin to do things that relax you,” says Clete Kushida, MD, director of the Stan-ford University Center for Human Sleep Research. “Take a bath, read quietly, watch a favorite show, whatever works.

“If possible, minimize your exposure to bright light during this time. Follow a similar pattern every night and your body gets conditioned to expect that it’s time for bed, so you’ll fall asleep more easily.” If you have a snack, try small portions of low-fat carbs, such as toast with a little jam or cereal with milk.

Want a drink? Chamomile tea and honey are both natural sedatives. Just don’t eat a big meal within three hours of going to bed. Digesting a large amount of food has been shown to make you less sleepy.

Kids’ Bedtime
Habit: Staying in your child’s room until he falls asleep. Your child will become dependent on you to nod off. And when he awakens in the middle of the night (as everyone does), he won’t be able to fall back to sleep on his own. Not only will you not get enough sleep, but it’ll also be fragmented, and not very restorative.

A better approach: Pave the way for your child to sleep in his own room by himself. “Stick to a specific bedtime,” says Dr. Kushida. “Tell him that if he needs to use the bathroom or get a drink of water, he should do it beforehand. Follow a soothing routine — perhaps a bath and reading together — then say good night and leave.”

Naturally, your child isn’t going to like this at first. When my son, Liam, was a toddler, we got into the habit of playing a tape of kids’ songs to lull him to sleep. The problem? If he woke up during the night, the music wouldn’t be on and he’d yell “Tape!” in a blood-curdling scream. My husband or I would run to play the tape, bleary-eyed from the interrupted sleep.

We decided to cut him off cold turkey, which involved two horrible nights of Liam crying himself to sleep. We felt like the worst parents in the world. By the third night, though, he grumbled a little and started to snooze in about five minutes. So stay firm. Your child will eventually adapt to your new routine and everyone will catch more zzz’s.

Weekend Sleep-ins
Sleeping late on the weekends when your husband can watch the kids. Of course it’s tempting, and you deserve the break. But sleep regularity is just as important as sleep quantity, says Amy Wolfson, PhD, author of The Woman’s Book of Sleep (New Harbinger Publications, $16.95). “If you’ve been sleep-deprived all week, getting a little extra on the weekends may be beneficial. But don’t overdo it, or you’ll throw off your sleep/wake cycle and Monday morning will be brutal.”

A better approach: By all means, take your husband up on the offer. Just don’t sleep in longer than one hour, which is enough to make you feel refreshed. Consider doing something else with the extra time — take a walk or read the Sunday paper uninterrupted.

Exercise in Morning
Not exercising at all or exercising too close to bedtime, Physical activity can help you nod off more easily and improve the quality of your sleep.

How? No one knows for sure, but there are theories: It may help regulate your body’s circadian rhythms. Or, because exercise raises body temperature during the day, your body may try to lower its temperature at night, which makes you drowsy. Or perhaps exercise cuts down on anxiety and other problems that may interfere with sleep. Exercising close to your bedtime, though, can make you too wired and your body too warm to sleep.

A better approach: Be active during the day if possible, but not within two to three hours of bedtime. In a recent study, women who worked out first thing in the day reaped the most sleep benefits. If you take your child to preschool every day and you don’t have to rush to work, wear workout clothes and exercise right after. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of daily aerobic activity.

Even a brisk 10-minute walk three times a day helps. To fit exercise into her busy day, mom Lynn Lombard turned her basement, where she keeps exercise equipment, into a playroom for her 4-year-old. “That’s the only place in the house where Amanda’s allowed to paint or use Play-Dough, so she loves being down there, and I get to work out in peace.” She also started planning dinners in advance, so she has more time to work out.

Napping with Baby
Napping when your baby naps. This classic advice applies only when you’re getting up every few hours at night to feed your newborn. Once he’s a few months old and sleeping longer — and especially if he’s sleeping through the night and you are, too — you don’t need to nap much. Babies should get about 15 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. You need about 8. If you snooze for 3 hours during the day, you may have trouble sleeping at night.

A better approach: If you’re tired, take a catnap at about the same time every day. Ten to 20 minutes will help you feel refreshed for another few hours. Doze much longer than that and you can wake up feeling worse than you did before.

Take Care of Yourself
Ignoring your health issues. You’d never miss a well-baby checkup, but when was your last physical? Many treatable conditions interfere with a good night’s sleep, including PMS, asthma, restless leg syndrome and bladder problems. (Going to the bathroom once in the middle of the night is normal; going three or four times is not.)

About 50 percent of people who have chronic insomnia have an underlying psychological issue, such as anxiety disorder or depression.

A better approach: See your doctor if you think any health concerns are affecting your sleep. All of the problems mentioned above can be helped with medication and lifestyle changes. Says Nancy Collop, MD, spokeswoman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “You don’t have to suffer.”

Laura Flynn McCarthy is a freelance writer.