Sleep is precious and vital to a healthy mind and body. As I write this article with a 4-week old sleeping on my chest, I am acutely present to the restorative nature of sleep – for both parents and baby! It is interesting how much we focus on routines and techniques to help infants and children fall asleep and then somehow as adults we throw all of that out the window. Few of us have an intentionally crafted sleep routine. In fact, many of us expect to be able to have a stressful conversation with a family member, watch an episode of true crime, have three glasses of wine and then fall asleep within ten minutes of hitting the pillow.
When it comes to sleep, normal sleep patterns differ greatly by individual and stage of life. A teenager might require ten hours of sleep to feel rested, while many folks over seventy might be fine with six or seven hours. Despite the fitness tracker industry’s desire to quantify everything for us, the most important criteria for good sleep is not the minutes of REM, but the subjective experience of falling asleep with ease and waking rested.
When creating a healthy adult sleep routine, I encourage you to begin by engaging the senses. In the same way that I can smell pipe tobacco, be reminded of Thanksgiving at my uncle’s house, and begin to salivate in anticipation of his chocolate pecan pie, you can condition your brain to associate sleep with specific sensory experiences.
Sight: Darkness is generally best. Avoid blue light from TV or phone screens for, at minimum, one hour prior to bed. Consider blackout curtains or an eye mask if there are outside lights you can’t control.
Smell: One of the most powerful senses in creating sensory associations is smell. Consider using essential oils like lavender or peppermint in the bedroom before sleep.
Taste: Chamomile, mint, or valerian herbal teas are all commonly used prior to bed to help us wind down. Although, if you suffer from urinary issues that take you to the bathroom frequently, you might want to be cautious with this one.
Hearing: Many find white noise or brown noise helpful both for sleep onset as well as sleep maintenance. Free apps exist on your phone that allow you to play many variations of white noise.
Touch: Studies have shown that a temperature at or below 68 degrees typically improve sleep. Weight blankets or a heavy down comforter in winter are other ways to engage a sense of touch in the bedtime routine
For all of the sensory connections that you choose incorporate, the more that you are able to limit their use solely to your sleep routine, the more effective they will be.
Sometimes in life and in sleep we get in a rut where a negatively reinforced cycle is hard to break. I see many individuals who sleep poorly at night, feel exhausted during the day, find themselves napping for two hours in the afternoon, and then subsequently can’t fall asleep in the evening. If this describe you or a loved one, I would recommend exploring “sleep retraining” which is an intentional re-calibration of your sleep-wake cycle to return to nighttime sleep. Multiple protocols for doing this gradually or more dramatically exist online.
For those with insomnia, you might find that engaging the senses is not sufficient. In such cases, I recommend speaking with your primary healthcare provider. Sometimes an underlying condition such as sleep apnea, enlarged prostate, depression, or anxiety needs to be addressed first. Other times, using a medication for insomnia, engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy such as that available on the CBT-I app, or beginning a Yoga Nidra practice are more effective.
Finally, I encourage you to have patience. New habits and routines do happen overnight, just not likely in one night. If you find yourself lying in bed cursing Dr. Woodward because the chamomile tea hasn’t put you to sleep after fifteen minutes, I encourage you to take a deep breath, turn on a guided meditation for sleep, and remind yourself that meditation alone provides many of the restorative qualities of sleep for both mind and body.