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Sleep hygiene for parents

Coach Janna Johannsen by Janna Johannsen
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How have you imagined parenting before your first child was born? I had expected lots of challenges, less sleep being one of them. But I did not truly know what it feels like, what it means to be sleep deprived for not days or weeks, but months and years.

One tool helped me to stay sane over time: Taking advantage of knowing what supports good sleep for me as a human being. What sleep environment we need, how we are biologically wired to sleep and how nature influences our sleep.

I hate the term "having a good sleep hygiene", but it is probably what you've heard it being called. No, you are not dirty, filthy or untidy if you're not following the points from the list I'm going to share with you in a second... but probably more tired. ;-)

Of course, this won't make a little child sleep through the night, nor will it make a day less exhausting. But when a chance to sleep arrives, making the best out of it does make a difference for your rest and recreation.

The advice to take a hot bath with relaxing music for example might sound sarcastic if it's already a challenge to shower every few days. To spare you such frustrating tips that are not really tailored to busy, exhausted parents parenting 24/7, I've applied my Mama-reality-filter to the following list and added ideas for family-friendly tweaks. But still, everyone's situation is different.

You're invited to take on your "Can-do-glasses": Look for what you can try and experiment with. The rest might suit others better, it's not meant to bother you.

1. Are screens at night effecting your energy?
You have an important appointment the next morning and you wake up just before the alarm rings. Have you ever wondered how this is possible? You have a clock in your body! It's not perfectly exact, but very reliable. While your conscious mind is travelling through dream land, this system in your body is tracking time and managing your sleep. It's called "circadian rhythm".

Our planet is dictated by the sunlight. The rhythm of light and darkness, day and night, has always been there for us human beings. We and other creatures use the sunlight to update our internal clock and sync it with our environment.

Being tired is not enough to fall asleep and sleep well. Optimal is being tired at the right time, when your circadian rhythm says "It's time to sleep.", too.

Artificial lights from bright lamps and sreens at night tell your internal clock that it is noon. Your body adjusts hormones accordingly, which can make it hard to fall asleep and sleep well. Amount of sleep AND quality sleep both are important to feel rested in the morning.

Also, natural sunlight in the morning and over the day help to rematch our circadian rhythm with our current natural environment. With other words: Getting outside as soon as possible in the morning and outdoor time during the day help us fall asleep and sleep better at night.

So, if you're not sure if lights really make any noticable difference to your sleep, how about a little experiment? How could you avoid artificial lights a few hours before sleep or as long as it feels possible? You don't have to move into a tent or a cave to do that. Many people find it convenient to ware orange glasses for watching TV. For other devices with screens there are programs and apps to filter out blue light. How can you get natural sunlight in your eyes as soon as possible after getting out of bed in the morning? Where can you fit in some more outdoor time into your day? What have you experienced during your experiment and what did you learn from it?

2. Smartphone in bed
When I was pregnant with my first child I felt very clear about not using my phone anywhere near the baby. In reality I couldn't resist. As a young mum this one little device promised me entertainment, connection, destraction, an opportunity to work or learn, and much more. All of this is reachable spontaniously at any time of the day, no matter if you're stuck under a sleeping child or whatever.

But all smartphone's fancy features can be highly stimulating at night, much more than its screen light is*.
It messes with sleep and recovery, which means more tiredness the next day.

As mentioned above, there are tons of reasons to use a smartphone at night and to be resistant to change that habit. Sometimes it might not be the right time for a change. But if you're after the benefits of a phone free bedroom, which are priceless in my experience, here are some ideas to start:
- How about coming up with as many pros of a phone free bedroom as you can? Who can help you with the list? Where could you find more pros to add to your list?
- How would you potentially go about quitting or reducing smartphone usage at night?

3. Movement over the day
Yes, being exhausted is not quite motivating to spring to your feet and start a workout. Imagine two different days: On the first day you are constantly using your mind. You are working concentrated while sitting, trying to figure out something or make a plan constantly or worrying all day long without moving your body much. At night you are lying in bed trying to fall asleep. How does that feel like? Another day is full of physical activities. You're on your feet all day long. Whether it is grocery shopping, cooking, going for a walk with the children or maybe a special event like a long hike, how do you feel at night?
There is a different kind of exhaustion coming from movement of the body and from thinking or worrying. Which do you prefer? In my experience, balancing out these two supports recreation, sleep and energy levels.
How would that look like for you?

Having said that, it's wise to be mindful of your energy resources. Sometimes the batteries are just empty. Sometimes the best decision is to take it slow and rest. And sometimes, even a tiny habit change, a few slow steps outdoors or other seemingly small "movement snacks" can make you feel more energised and alive.

Also, sleep experts do not recommend to exercise just before bedtime. For some parents this time feels like the only slot to add in a workout. If this is you, have an eye on how it is harmonising with your sleep.

4. Caffeine
Odd one out: Mother, sleep, coffee, chocolate.???? A very common self-description written by busy mums is "... running on coffee and chocolate" and the like. So you're not alone if you feel like you can't survive a day without coffee or other caffeinated drinks. And you have your reasons for doing so!

I'm not going to tell you that coffee is entirely bad for you, it probably isn't. But drinking coffee might cost you some sleep quality. Although it feels like an energy booster, for the body it's stress. Clearing the caffeine, your body is using some precious nutrients. Some human bodies do that quickly within a few hours, some need the whole day. Even if you don't have problems to fall asleep after drinking coffee, it might still make you sleep less well.

What does drinking coffee cost you? Is it worth reducing it or quitting? Again, experimenting with it and watching the results might give you some answers.
If you're drinking several cups a day or if you're experiencing withdrawal symptoms like headaches, reduce the amount of coffee you drink slowly over a few weeks.

Some people find pleasure in drinking a coffee replacements. Although not the 100% the same, there are for example spice teas, chicory root coffee and more beverages. Another strategy is to drink coffee only before noon.

5. Sleeping environment
Do you prefer to re-arrange your bedroom a bit, instead of changing your habits? Then this one is for you. How about creating a dark and cool sleeping space with enough room for everybody who sleeps there?

People who'd thought they didn't have a sleep problem were surprised how much more rested they felt in the morning after optimising darkness and temperature. "Dark" means no light at all, completely dark, black.

Having enough space is especially interesting for co-sleeping families. Adding a matress to the family-bed has been a game changer for me. Even if the extra space is not needed all of the time. Many families did not plan to co-sleep at all or as long as they do. So the bed or sleeping place is made for maybe two instead of three, four or more people.

There might be limitations, but what CAN you do to make your bedroom support your sleep and re-charge?

Hookway, Lyndsey: Still Awake: Responsive sleep tools for toddlers to tweens.

Walker, Matthew: Why We Sleep.

*Kara M. Duraccio, Kelsey K. Zaugg, Robyn C. Blackburn, Chad D. Jensen: Does iPhone night shift mitigate negative effects of smartphone use on sleep outcomes in emerging adults? Sleep Health, Volume 7, Issue 4, 2021, Pages 478-484, ISSN 2352-7218,

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