I tried and tried to develop a pithy title for a post on sleep. Some ideas I had…”Sleep: A Love Hate Relationship.” “SLEEP: The Forbidden Dance for Mothers of Babes.” “How to Enhance your Sleep Life.” Let’s be honest, at this exact phase of my life, 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep sounds like the most desirable and sought after thing that I can dream of. If I had 8 hours of uninterrupted and blissful sleep, I think I could probably take on the world. I was ALWAYS an awesome sleeper. I could take a nap anywhere and my sleep started the moment my head hit the pillow at night. But then my precious babies (whom I wouldn’t trade for gold) came along, and they need to nurse at night, or pee at night, or have a drink of water at night. When you multiply those needs times three, they can really add up. I give my lack of sleep credit for weight gain, increased anxiety, and memory loss. What I sought to determine was whether or not this credit was due. Was sleep, or the lack thereof, able to cause such palpable symptoms in my journey towards quality of life, mindfulness, and self-care?
In my research on the impact of sleep in our ability to improve our level of functioning and enhance mindful awareness, I came across a “Whole Health Changing the Conversation: Neuroplasticity and Sleep Clinical Tool” created by the Integrative Medicine Program, Department of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health in cooperation with Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, under contract to the Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, Veterans Health Administration. This document is highly clinical in composition, but does an excellent job explaining how the body views sleep deprivation as stress. In my clinical practice, I often discuss the impact of chronic stress on the body. Your body has a natural reaction to what it associates with or as stress. This reaction is preparing you for survival. It dumps chemicals that (if needed) can make you more reactive, faster, stronger, etc. However, when you are not in a situation where you have to run for your life or fight your way to survival, these chemicals can cause damage. These chemicals also keep you awake and alert. So you can understand how stress and sleep deprivation become a cyclical battle. Understanding that your body is equipped this way is fascinating and helps you to understand the importance of stress-management, rest, and healing for your body. This tool also describes why sleep is essential for neuroplasticity:
Neuroplasticity is defined as change in the brain’s structure and function due to experience. The brain was once thought to become immutable after a critical period of development in early childhood. Now we know that the brain is constantly changing in response to experience and disease. Given the fundamental importance of sleep in the biology of all life, it should come as no surprise that sleep has major effects on the brain through neuroplastic mechanisms.
Neuroplasticity is essential for healing, the creation of and maintenance of memories, creating new pathways for information to be processed, and in maintaining overall brain health. Neuroplasticity is what creates the opportunity for a stroke or traumatic brain injury victim to learn to walk again. The brain is literally capable of finding a new route to process information and commands. Can we please take a moment to applaud our incredible bodies and what they are capable of…?
Outside of understanding the science behind sleep and the brain, I also wanted to start a conversation. Am I alone in the world? Who else has this battle with sleep? Is anyone else out there longing for improved sleep? So, naturally, I asked the question on Facebook. I quickly got a multitude of responses. People expressed that they identify with the struggle. People marketed the products they sell that can promote rest and relaxation. People recommended routines and habits that promote resting well. People expressed that they had found the solution to getting 8 hours of sleep with children. Long story short…I am NOT alone in my ongoing journey towards improving my sleep. It was encouraging and provided me with lots of ideas and set out on a whole new path of research and discovery.
Taking from my Facebook conversation, interactions with friends, my personal experience, and research I wanted to provide you with some tips to improve your sleep.
- Consult your physician: I always want to make sure that everyone takes their physical struggles to their family provider. Make sure there is not an underlying reason for your inability to wind down. If you feel concerned about blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, etc. it is important to implement self-care but also have an ongoing conversation with your provider to be safe and cover all your bases.
- Develop a Routine: this for me has been the ultimate struggle as a mother. I am spontaneous and disorganized. However, my ability to stay on top of housework, laundry, appointments, practices, projects, bills, etc. etc. etc. has been dependent on creating a doable level of organization and routine. This is crucial at night. Routines create positive habits, but also create signals that tell your body what is coming next. This routine can be as involved as including dinner time, bath time, one cartoon, warm milk, brush teeth, read book, prayers, lay down. Repeat nightly. Or it could be as simple as spraying a lavender linen spray or rubbing essential oils on your and your children’s feet to create a signal that appeals to your sense of smell then reading a bedtime story. An important term used in my description of routine is Whatever routine you choose to implement must be achievable for the long run. Similar to a diet (or any lifestyle change for that matter) you want to create a realistic opportunity to be successful.
- Promote the body’s ability to relax: There are so many ways to achieve this. Multiple folks expressed their belief in the impact of essential oils, using oil on their body or diffusing oils in the room (some specific oils mentioned were cedarwood, vetiver, and other blends specific to essential oil companies.) My family and I certainly use oils; I absolutely believe this is a path to promoting relaxation. I have a lavender and chamomile linen spray that I crave at night now. I love breathing it in and my kiddos love it as well. Meditation and mindfulness exercises can also help. Box breathing, the body scan meditation, or certain music enhances your mind’s willingness to slow down and can aide in your pursuit of sweet sleep. Exercise and nutrition can also play a role in promoting rest for your body.
- Remove sleep disruptions: I shared wonderful dialogue with a dear family friend Jeannie Nichols, who is also a Licensed Spiritual Healer and Raindrop Specialist about this exact topic: the importance of removing distractions that interrupt the ability for our brain to rest. For instance, falling asleep with the television on is a sleep deterrent. “The light fluctuation is disruptive to sleep,” says Nichols. I also read an informative article regarding blue light exposure and its impact on our sleep written by Michael J. Breus, PhD a.k.a. “The Sleep Doctor.” I recommend reading the article, “The latest on blue light and sleep” in its entirety. Breus summarizes his thoughts by saying, “Nighttime blue light exposure is indeed harmful to sleep and circadian rhythms. And taking steps to manage blue light exposure—including using red light sources during evening hours—can make a real difference.”
- Be open: Life can throw you curve balls and you might have to adjust your routine or day-to-day priorities from time to time to achieve wellness. My relationship with sleep has been heavily impacted by the introduction of those three precious and dependent souls that are my children. One day they will not be as dependent. One day they may not want to snuggle so close. One day they will be headed out to conquer their own version of the world. I will, then, have complete and total access to 8 hours of sleep and my full short term memory capacities. For now, some 2:00 AM snuggles may not be the worst thing in the world. I fully believe that so much of our ability to cope with life’s trials is wrapped up in our willingness to open our hearts, love others, and love ourselves.
So, for now, I will mindfully and lovingly meet the needs of my children and give myself grace as I continue my dance with sleep. Sweet dreams until next time friends.
Peace, Love, and Laughter,