To Sleep, Perchance

Photo: nationalgeographic.com.au

Photo: nationalgeographic.com.au

Sleep is getting a lot of press. Ariana Huffington has a new book about it and Fitbit has a new sleep habits program. I am getting less sleep than ever.

I think I need 7 hours of sleep a night to function well for the 4 days a week I work 9-5 (the other day, I work 1-9). Seven is an arbitrary number. I don’t think it’s realistic for me to aim for eight.

On weeknights, I usually get 6 hours of sleep, and I always feel tired during the day – not all day, every day, but I do have a severe after-lunch/afternoon meeting crash.

On weekends I go to bed late and naturally get about 7.5 hours of sleep without any effort.

I get up at 5:15 and work out for an hour, four times a week. A few times lately I’ve had to hit the snooze alarm, skip the workout and sleep an extra hour so I can function better. But then I feel sluggish because I am used to that morning hit of movement!

My weekday morning routine goes like this:

  • 5:15-5:30 get up and ready
  • 5:30-6:30 workout
  • 6:30-7:15 shower and chat with Rom before he leaves for work
  • 7:15-8:00 coffee, breakfast and Internet
  • 8:00-8:30 make lunch and get ready for work

I work 9-5 and I walk to and from work twice a day (home for lunch) and I’m also on my feet a good part of each day, so I’m fairly active.

After work, I have 90 minutes before Rom gets home, so I go for a long walk if I skipped the morning workout, or cook dinner when it’s my turn.

I rarely stay up late for anything except computer use. Sometimes I cram the end of my book club book the day before the meeting, but otherwise it is solely screen time that keeps me up. It could be blogging, budgeting, listing, editing photos or suddenly deciding I have to check the next day’s weather at 11 p.m. There is always one more thing I could check and always new content waiting for me. I draw the line at screen time in bed and don’t bring a phone or tablet bedside, but I cannot lie: sometimes my retinas have been knocked for a loop by 4 hours of computer use before bed.

One of the reasons I’m prone to so much computer use in the evenings is that after being up for 14 hours (from 5:15 a.m. to 7:15 p.m.), I’m not really fit to do much else! After being active all day, I can’t read a book or watch a DVD without crashing. That limits my evenings to home-based activities like taking walks, gardening, grocery shopping or decluttering. I can go out in the evenings if it’s not something sedentary (a movie or lecture usually leaves me in zzzs). But computer use can keep me awake indefinitely.

I have a bedtime routine – I just put off doing it! Fitbit’s article about sleep habits helped me realize that when I’m groggy and want to sleep, rousing myself to do the bedtime routine actually makes me feel more wakeful again, and messes with the cycle. In particular, washing my face (while essential after the day’s sunscreen) completely resets my clock and makes me feel wide awake! If I brushed my teeth and used my new Waterpik earlier, I would stop snacking earlier, too.

I have to be honest: any problems I have falling asleep are usually due to co-sleeping. When I go to bed, I am exhausted and ready to go to sleep immediately. When Rom goes to bed, he needs a lot of time to wind down. He likes to chat, and he uses his iPad in bed for hours. I’m not sure if I’ve said how chatty Rom is. He talks as he goes to bed and he talks as he wakes up with no regard as to whether I am sleeping or trying to sleep. He must assume that if I’m asleep, I just won’t answer – not realizing that every time he speaks, he wakes me up. He is just hardwired to talk. He deals with this by watching videos and listening to podcasts for hours in bed. The light from his screen keeps me up even when it’s under the covers! Any kind of light prevents me from falling asleep – but natural light does not bother me in the morning. I’m glad I don’t live above the Arctic Circle!

We have heat pumps in the house which require all the bedroom doors to be open for air circulation. The cats get active when we go to bed and I can hear them playing in the hallway and kitchen. They come and go from the bedroom and although they’re not allowed on/in the bed, one of them always comes to visit me in the middle of the night (like clockwork). She walks on my pillow and nuzzles my face! I get up and put Gigi out and close the door for the rest of the night.

I have to use the bathroom once during the night. Cutting back on drinks before bed does not help. On a good night, I can combine this with the cat exit wakening 🙂

I have hot flashes. It’s been 2 years now. I wake up with them about 3 times a night and it can take a while to cool off and get back to sleep. This after a whole lifetime of always being cold, to the point of wearing socks to bed!

Happily, I don’t have any trouble falling asleep or getting back to sleep due to worry. I have had those times in my life, but I ‘m very thankful I’m on an even keel now. If anything, I probably slept more when I had more worries, as an escape.

So, what to do? The usual advice is to stop caffeine, exercise and computer use earlier in the evening (or go to none in the evening).

I drink half-caff coffee from 7 in the morning until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Sometimes I have a cup of tea in the evening. It had never affected my sleep, but I should experiment. Maybe that has changed because of the menopause thing. I am not actually willing to give up coffee, but it’s the taste I like, so I could switch from real to decaf at mid-day and see if it makes a difference.

I am concerned about cutting back on computer use at night. What else could I even do that would keep me awake?! I suppose I could limit use by setting a timer, or just do necessary tasks (such as bill paying), but it will be very difficult unless I adopt some new hobbies. I could force myself to do all the housework, but how motivating is that?! As an empty-nester, I do have a lot of free time, and I don’t want to feel like I’m inventing things to keep myself busy. On the other hand, I think night time computer use is a real problem and I should wean myself from it.

The other usual advice is to set a bedtime and stick to it, maybe even 7 nights a week. I have decided to start with 4 nights a week, set reminders and see if I can force myself onto a schedule. This will also mean doing my bedtime routine early, let’s say an hour before bed, so I can relax afterwards and not feel jolted back awake by that flurry of activity.

I should note that napping doesn’t work for me. Ever since I was 3 years old, I haven’t napped. I could never fall asleep during the day. Now I can, but I feel much groggier when I wake up than I did before the nap, and that effect lasts for an hour or more. To me, it is not worth it.

To be good, I will make a doctor’s appointment and get checked for iron, B12 and thyroid function, just in case.

Over all, I am disappointed that being fit and eating well have not prevented sleep problems and I’m sure a lot of it is down to ageing 😦 On the plus side, I do have the ability to sleep later on non-work days, and my current situation doesn’t compare to the fatigue I’ve experienced at other times of my life (like new baby exhaustion). Also, I am comfortable with my life and I don’t have the kind of unease that creates an underlying weariness about the world.

I only have a couple of weeks before my next vacation, but it would feel good to be rested up before I go, so I’m going to give all the good habits a spin.

If you’ve had difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, what advice or habits have helped? And what advice do you keep getting that you find useless?!

28 comments

  1. Lorraine

    Sleep in another room with the door closed. As long as someone is talking and there is a light on (IPAD ) all the sleep advice won’t help. It wouldn’t make sense to take sleep medication. Why don’t you ask Rom to stay in another part of the house until he is actually ready ready to go to sleep? Maybe a few nights of being alone in the bedroom will bring him around to your way of thinking – or at least on the nights you have to work. The fact that he is “hard wired ” to talk just gives him the freedom to behave badly towards you. When you get up in the morning are you quiet and do your best not to wake him? My guess is that you are. If so get up, turn on the light and put on some music and by all means talk!

    • Hi Lorraine, You promote the tough love approach! I used to fall asleep easily and get back to sleep easily without a thought. That has really only changed for me in the past 6 months. I realized I hadn’t communicated that with Rom very well and he doesn’t know how important it has become to me. So we are now working out a plan!

  2. I totally agree with all Lorraine said. Fix yourself another sleeping room. Use a bed, pillows and bed linens that suit you.
    I had to do this when I had an episode of knee pain that required me to sleep in a couple of different positions a night. I am a heavy sleeper but my husband of 45 years is a light sleeper and frequently gets up. Later we switched bedrooms so mine is in the back of the house. We are both so much happier with separate bedrooms.
    I never use to value sleep. Sleeping is wasting your life, napping is for sissies etc – that kind of thinking.
    Now I am learning to love sleep. I also don’t worry about life or God or the atomic bomb anymore. I feel so much better in the morning but after lunch, like you. it’s all downhill from there. I’m tired. A lot. I’ve tried eating less at lunch etc.
    I get your struggle to resolve this issue. I am also an early riser, never nap, use a Fitbit and walk for exercise several times a day, spend hours of my free time online especially with genealogy, plus I use a computer and the internet all day at work, I fall asleep reading at night, have an elderly corgi who sleeps by my bed and growls/barks if anything is going on with my husband or the cat and knows my routine and schedule even better than my Fitbit (as in it’s time to get up and feed me), have to get up and pee usually twice,
    I have made good progress but I am aiming for 8 hours. Right now I average 7. Once in a blue moon I sleep through the 7 hours. Like you I set my Fitbit alarm as to when to go to bed and I’m happy when I obey it. Although the biggest help was having separate rooms there was also another key element. I do take my phone to bed and if needed I’ve listened to a particular guided meditation as I fall asleep for the last couple of years. . No earbuds. I don’t use it every night because like Pavlov’s dog just getting under the covers and plugging in my phone to charge and I feel myself begin to get sleepy. If I don’t fall asleep within 5 min I will start the meditation and that seals the deal. I never make it past the first 5 min of the 20 min set. I wish I would as they are very beautiful. I have actually done these during the day as well and they are very relaxing but don’t put me to sleep if I’m outdoors.
    My plan is to keep at it until I can go to bed and sleep 8 hours.

    • We sound a lot alike, Debbie! I hadn’t thought of doing a meditation so I will add that to my bag of tricks. Sometimes I wonder how many alert, productive hours we are supposed to have. If I am up 16 hours a day and sleep 8, is is reasonable to be energetic for all 16? Thinking about that.

  3. Separate sleeping arrangements or dedicated bedtimes minus partner interruptions will probably do the most good, honestly. I’ve been there with my spouse (he’s a chatty, long-time-to-wind-down kind of person), and that’s what worked for me.

    There was a book out about a decade ago about hydration. I think it was called You’re Not Tired, You’re Thirsty. Or at least that was the main message. People tend to drink caffeinated beverages to wake themselves up, but the reality is, the “upper” effect doesn’t make you more wakeful. You stay tired, but wired. And it dehydrates you to boot. So for drinks, decaf is a great option. And if you’re feeling tired, drink a tall glass of ice water. I cut caffeine many years ago and have adopted drinking water when I’m dragging during the day. I find it helps.

    Good luck, and good sleep!

    • Thanks, Mrs. F! I see what you mean about “tired but wired.” I should have thought of that – caffeine helps you power through tiredness temporarily, but doesn’t solve the problem (i.e. lack of sleep!) After further discussion, Rom is willing to try a screen-free and quiet bedtime again.

  4. Fiona

    So many schools have iPad programs that it is really the default now for schools to advise parents to stick to the ‘no media in the bedroom’ rule. I wonder if you could discuss this with Rom? I know at my school, we advise parents to make a household rule that ALL devices are kept and used in the ‘living areas only.’ This applies to laptops, iPads and phones. It really is the default media etiquette for young people to keep devices out of the bedroom (and probably should be for older ones!)

    Perhaps you could also incorporate your nephew, by finding out what policies his school advises and asking Rom to be a good role model in applying them? I know that in our house, we have to be quite strict about enforcing the ‘no devices in the bedroom before bed’ rule. We don’t want our 12 yo to have any ‘out’ to start bringing devices into his own room. We even had to ban e-books because we noticed his sleep became very disrupted after he started bringing his iPad to bed to use for reading.

    If none of this is possible, I really recommend trying (herbal) Valerian Forte. One or two capsules before bed really knocks me out, but there’s no side-effects in waking up in the morning. I’ve used it for short-term periods of a month or two to re-set my sleep patterns.

    • Thanks, Fiona. We have not been diligent at all about screen time. When Link lived at home, we had a desktop and a laptop in the living/shared areas of the house and no devices in the bedrooms, but that has gone by the wayside. Rom has experimented with no screen time in the evenings at all (I haven’t), so he should do fine under a new regime!

  5. Fiona

    PS. I would also look at the spare bedroom option. I think sometimes people feel weird about resorting to the spare bed, but it is important for your health to get uninterrupted sleep! We have a spare bed and use it if one or other of us has a big day ahead and needs to be sure of getting a good night’s sleep.

    • If one of us feels like staying up very late, the living room couch is incredibly comfy. I always associate spare bedroom arrangements with couples I know in which one of them snores and keeps the other awake!

  6. EcoCatLady

    Well, I could write a novel on this topic so I’ll try not to go overboard here.

    My first though is that if you have trouble staying awake in the evenings while watching a movie or similar activities, it means that you are not getting enough sleep. So rather than trying to come up with something different that will keep you awake in the evenings, my suggestion would be to simply go to bed earlier. Either that or permanently move your workout to the after work time and let yourself sleep longer in the mornings.

    I can totally relate to the bedtime routine waking you up. That used to happen to me all the time. I’d be on the couch watching TV or something, barely able to keep my eyes open, but I didn’t want to deal with the bedtime routine so I’d stay up later. Then when I finally dragged myself into the bathroom to get ready for bed, it would totally wake me up. Vicious cycle!

    I have finally come to the realization that as a life-long night owl, I just have to be disciplined with myself and go to bed before I really feel tired. Because if I wait until I really feel tired, it’s too late. I know it sounds counter intuitive, but if I head to bed before I’m exhausted, the routine doesn’t wake me up, it has the opposite effect.

    I’m not good at sleeping with a partner either (part of the reason CatMan and I don’t live together.) But if you’re not willing to go the separate sleeping quarters route, I’d suggest talking with him about his habit of waking you up. I’d also suggest getting a sleeping blindfold. I got in the habit of using one when I worked at the music school and kept all sorts of crazy hours, like working until 2-3am when we had special events. It REALLY helps if light wakes you up.

    I also have the waking up too hot thing – though I’m not sure they are actual hot flashes – I’m plenty old enough, but I’m still on the pill and theoretically that prevents symptoms like hot flashes. But at any rate, I have a few techniques for dealing with it. So… if I stay up too late I get really cold. This causes me to go into “stay warm” mode – wearing too many clothes, having too many covers, thermostat set too high. As you might guess, that backfires in a few hours when I wake up boiling! So I try to aim for less clothes & covers, and a lower thermostat than I think I want – and if I feel cold at bedtime I’ll take a quick warm bath before bed. Seems to work for me.

    OK, I could go on forever, but I’ll spare you. Instead I’m going to bed! (Even though I’m not exactly tired yet.) 🙂

    • Hi Cat, I do know I need to get to bed earlier. There are usually a lot of things I want to do after work, so it’s hard to make myself give up things I want to do and sleep instead. I like working out in the mornings when I feel the most wakeful so I will have to experiment with after work workouts! I have never used a sleep blindfold but I should try it. For the first year it happened to me, I didn’t believe I was getting hot flashes. I would wake up wrapped tight in blankets so it had to be that. I would sleep with the bedroom door closed and note objectively that the room temperature had gone up during the night. I stopped wearing socks to bed! A lot of times, Rom agreed it was too warm so I felt vindicated. Then it caught up with me and I was getting night sweats while in the same room, Rom was freezing, or I’d get up to use the bathroom and realize how cold the house was. Maybe you are not on that track, but don’t rule it out!

      • EcoCatLady

        I hear you… never enough hours in the day! You’re fortunate that you can get by with so little sleep. I turn into misery on wheels if I don’t get enough sleep.

        And you could be right, could be I am having hot flashes and the stuff I’ve read is wrong. I would sort of love it if that were true. People tell me menopause is nothing to look forward to, but honestly, my monthly visitor has never been kind to me. “Aunt Flow” tends to bring with her horrible cramps, migraine headaches, and just a general sense of misery, so part of me can’t wait to be done with her once and for all!

      • I was convinced that hot flashes weren’t a real thing or that I would be spared but I was wrong!

      • EcoCatLady

        Both my mother and her mother had full hysterectomies in their 30’s – so I have absolutely NO idea what to expect from “the change”. They say it’s easier if you stay on the pill until you’re through it, so that’s my current plan. We’ll see how it goes…

  7. I have the most profound memory of a post you wrote, when you were up in the middle of the night, drinking a tea with Rom. I remember thinking ‘who is Dar that she can not be fretting about needing to get back to sleep lest she be tired’. It still sticks in my mind!

    I have a rather firm ‘routine’ now, as I no longer can ‘hide’ at work, and hate being yawny/drowsy tired at work. At 8.30pm I stop screen time. I will stop TV shows and laptop use. At this time I usually shower (summer) and tidy up – dishes in dishwasher, little things. Once my teeth are done, I get into bed, and I read a library book. After a period of time, R comes in to ‘tuck me in’ and lies with me, and cuddles me, and we natter about the day. If he is out working/drinking and we don’t have the cuddle session, I do notice I have one ear open and take longer to fall asleep. Friday night, he was home after ‘lights out’ but he knew snuggles were non-negotiable, and came right in!

    I’m up at 5.30am for normal work (if I have a city meeting, I sleep in as I don’t have the 40min drive commute, and no meeting starts at 7am like when I go to normal work). I shower, heat & eat b’fast (sometimes read a blog post), tidy, and then dry my hair, lay down cuddles with sleeping R, and off. Takes me 50-60 mins. On the way, I get a coffee, usually the only one in a day. I have the lovely liberty of arriving as I please (aiming for 7am). I also give my team grief about tardiness… as they won’t work a minute past 3.30pm, whereas, I feel ‘weird’ I left at 4.10pm today (usually leave around 5-5.30pm).

    My routine works. There’s some problems: R knows he is in deep doodoo if he wakes me AND THEN I find him watching a show on his laptop/tablet/surfing on his phone. I always use the bathroom if I wake, as much to cool/regulate my body temp, as I often think that wakes me. I sleep super poorly during high stress events (work storms) as I can’t get my mind to stop. R knows he’s gotta be quiet when he comes in… it doesn’t always work (squeaky floor boards under the carpet). He knows the pain I am when I’m tired (pain to him, and it’s a pain for me).

    • Hi Sarah, Your routines sound ideal, and you must have communicated really well to get to this stage – good for you! I did sleep easily and well in the past but I guess it has caught up with me so I am trying to respect my need for sleep. Mostly if I had too few hours of sleep, I would just tell myself I’d go to bed earlier the next night or catch up on the weekend. I still do that, but I’m less functional and less happy in the meanwhile!

  8. Rusty

    Morning! I’m a poor sleeper too, I have regular periods where I wake very early and don’t go back to sleep, resulting in 4-5 hours a night for several successive days, maybe once a month. It’s a pig, and I don’t have any solurtions for you….. but I will pass on some advice I read recently which made sense to me: If you wake too early, and you sleep a regular 7 hours, try going to bed 7 hours before whatever time you are aiming to get up, setting an alarm. Then after a week or so move your bedtime back 10-15 mins a week till you are sleeping your target 8 hours. Apparently your getting-up time is more hard wired than your bed time.

    My first reaction to your morning routine was – wow, she potters around for 3 1/2 hours before she leaves for work? I consider myself a morning person but that seems extreme! I think if you got up later you’d have more energy in the evening, which is what you seem to want. Just looking at it from a different angle maybe worth considering, hope you don’t mind me interfering.
    X Rusty

    • Hi Rusty, Definitely not interfering since I have asked for advice! I am trying your technique this week (2 days in) of counting back 7 hours from my intended wake-up time and making myself go to bed that early. Increasing it in increments is a good idea. I would have to agree that my getting-up time is much more ingrained than my bedtime! I would say my ultimate goal is to have more energy at mid-day, at work (1-4 pm) when it really flags. I am fine from 5 am to 1 pm, but it’s all downhill from there. I have thought about what part of my morning pottering around I would be willing to give up, and I can’t decide: workout, time with spouse, Internet time – the getting ready for work part is non-negotiable, although I could make my lunches in the evenings. Thanks for chiming in!

      • Rusty

        What about making your workout shorter in the morning? If I can’t do an hour, I sometimes do a shorter more intense session – I will fall out of bed, put on the clothes I set out the night before and go for a 20 minute run. I can push myself a bit more because I am not going far. As a bonus it’s good practice to mix in fast and slow runs into your training. I don’t know what kind of workout you do, but you could perhaps apply this principle to the exercise you are currently doing?

      • Hi Rusty, I am trying to get 2 hours of activity a day (half from walking and half from workouts) and I could split it up more; that’s a possibility. Thanks!

      • Very interesting post, Dar! I never really thought about how much goes into sleep until my husband started working weird hours and struggled to sleep. Sleep has always come easily to me – feel tired, get in bed, sleep. Usually nothing wakes me. I always go to sleep early (9 before I got pregnant, 7:45 now) and wake up early. And I truly felt well rested and energetic all day almost every day prior to being pregnant (so I think it is possible! but I’m also about 20 years younger than you and I wonder if age may play a part in your waning afternoon energy?). My sleep hasn’t quite returned to normal yet . . I often get 7-8 hours straight so very close! 🙂 I like your idea of doing the bedtime routine earlier – then you will be ready for bed at a moment’s notice.

  9. There have been some great suggestions here! I’ll add my 2 cents. About an hour before I plan to go to sleep, I do one of my favorite math puzzles. I love Soduku and Ken-Ken puzzles. Probably sounds crazy to most people, but I find it relaxing, and puts me in the mood for bed. It keeps me from too much screen time, which can definitely keep me awake.

    I cut back on the caffeine, to the equivalent of one cup a day, in the morning. This seems to have helped my sleep, as well as my hot flashes. I’ve had hot flashes since I was 48, and to this day (now 64), still having them! My doctor tells me I’m one of the lucky ones who will probably have them her whole life 😉

    • Hi Carole, Doing a puzzle in the evening would be a good alternative to reading. Sometimes I will read and then fall asleep after 2 pages which doesn’t make for a good experience, or I will get engrossed in a book and stay up late. Maybe I’ll do a cryptogram! I was reading recently that medical sources often say hot flashes last about 2 years, but in real life they can go on for 7 years or more. I believe it, because if a body can’t regulate its temperature any more, why would that reverse itself? (Must be hormone levels, but they can’t be the same for everyone). Thanks for visiting!

      • Rusty

        Sudoku here too! I find it stops my brain wandering off into worrying or dwelling on other stuff, numbers don’t have any emotional feedback. Surprisingly I find it relaxes rather than stimulates.

  10. I was thinking screen time might be the culprit for you. My Aunt swears that the blue light emitted by computers and TVs greatly affects the pineal gland which in turn diminishes the quality of sleep we get.
    Like you, I am in front of a screen far too late into the night. Lucky for me after a while my body gets tired of sitting and I used that as my “time to go to bed” warning. Unfortunately the warning is usually close to or around midnight. 😦 I had set my phone to remind me to go to bed at 10:15 every night. So far I just dismiss it.
    “They” say to reset your internal clock you should find 3-4 nights where you consistently go to bed at the same time and let your body wake up naturally. By the 4-5th night you will see how many hours your body really needs and then you can count back accordingly.
    On a completely different but still related topic, I find that on days where I eat a lot of gluten I tend to be more sluggish. Something to thing about.

    • Well, I have met my 10:00 bedtime deadline for 4 nights in a row and I know I can do it now. Still waking up a lot at night (with zero interruptions from Rom) but I hope my “sleep training” program will work. I guess I am Ferberizing myself 🙂

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