Sleep… the dreaded topic for parents!
Sleep is a period of time in which the brain and body move through a recurring sequence of stages of brainwave activity and physiological changes with the end goal of helping the body to maintain homeostasis and prepare for the demands of wakefulness (Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, 2007). It is when we are sleeping that the body focuses on energy conservation, clears the brain of toxic metabolic by-products, maintains synaptic plasticity, and consolidates memories (Ballantyne, 2017). Given this, we should all know how important sleep is to our overall health. But sadly in today’s society, sleep is the one thing that the majority of us push to the back burner… especially busy Moms. The consequences of missed sleep are broad, impacting many aspects of physical and mental health in both short and long term.
On a physical level, poor sleep can impact digestion, blood sugar, fatty acid balance, and can result in endocrine, immune and cardiovascular conditions (Nutritional Therapy Association, 2019). It can also lead to memory disturbances, and plays a role in many psychiatric diagnoses including mood disorders. Knowing that new moms are already at an increased risk for postpartum depression, it is even more pressing that sleep be a primary focus of self-care.
Easier said than done though, I know. I realize after having a baby that I never truly knew what “tired” was. I have reached depths of exhaustion, after sleepless nights with a very challenged sleeper, that I never thought imaginable. Doctors told me that my daughter (now 4 1/2 years old) was an “alert baby.” She started showing disturbances in napping as early as 7 weeks of age. I was a nursing mom, so expected to be up in the night. But, this persisted until about 24 months, long after she was weaned. When she was 12 months, I was still waking up 10 times a night with her. I was the only one that could put her down or respond to her wakings, as she would escalate to screaming and vomiting if my husband tried to help. Many wake ups resulted in 1-2 hours of blood curdling cries if I refused to bring her back to our bed. I experienced a roller coaster of emotions. We spent a fair amount of money consulting sleep specialists and implementing sleep training plans for her. Yay for Behavior Modification and Applied Behavior Analysis! Thankfully, we are in a really great place at the moment. She has consistently been sleeping through the night for most of this past year. All of this backstory is to say… I know tired! And somehow through all of this I have managed to stay fairly healthy, physically strong, and free of major mental health concerns. As a result, I am able to be here to support my family. So here are my 8 tips for improving sleep for busy parents:
1. Prioritize and protect your sleep.
Depending on your child’s bedtime and duration of sleep, set a regular bed time for yourself. Consistent bed time and wake up times are crucial here. Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep if you can. Know that as a parent of a younger baby, you are going to wake up more in the night. This is inevitable, but by getting yourself to bed a littler earlier you can protect your sleep to some degree. Also don’t be afraid to ask your partner for help with night time wake ups. It is too much to expect one person to take on all of the burden.
2. Develop a healthy sleep hygiene routine.
Starting to dim lights an hour or two before bed, engage in calming activities (such as reading, journaling, or meditating), steer clear of blue light and power off electronics, don some blue light blocking glasses, bathe or wash your face. It is also important to make sure your sleep space is supportive to your 40 winks…. So sleep in a dark room, with a temperature of anywhere from 65-68 degrees.
3. Get bright light exposure during the day.
Just as it is important to stay away from bright blue light at night, it is important to make sure that you are getting plenty of bright light exposure (preferably sunlight) during your daytime waking hours. My recommendation is to get outside first thing in the morning and get at least 15 minutes of sun on your skin (without sunscreen). This plays a key role in helping to regulate our circadian rhythms, and supporting the production of melatonin at night.
4. Limit caffeine intake, especially after 12pm.
Caffeine (while at times a parent’s best friend) can significantly increase levels of cortisol and epinephrine. If consumed later in the day caffeine can cause challenges with falling asleep, as a result of feeling tired but wired.
5. Support the foundations of health by eating a nutrient dense, properly prepared, whole foods diet.
Making sure that you are eating a diet that is providing you with the right fuel for the demands of parenthood is crucial. Grass fed meats, pasture raised poultry and eggs, wild fish, organic fruits and veggies, nuts, and seeds are all great choices. Eating organ meats and seafood in particular provide a great source of tryptophan and amino acids, and Omega-3 fatty acids which are important in the production of serotonin and melatonin, and in supporting circadian rhythms (Ballantyne, 2017).
6. Get regular daily movement.
Regular physical activity, especially in the earlier hours of the day can play an important role in helping to regulate circadian rhythms and the production of melatonin. Getting in “exercise” can be challenging, especially for moms. So instead, focus on “movement” and sprinkle it throughout your day in whatever form you find manageable and fun.
7. Manage stress.
Stress = cortisol production. Cortisol also plays a role in helping to regulate circadian rhythms. So, if cortisol is consistently elevated, you can bet that your sleep is going to be disrupted. Meditation, going for a walk, journaling your thoughts, or carving out a few minutes to take a bath or read a book are all great tools for managing stress. If stress is significant, there is no shame in reaching out to a therapist for support.
8. Take naps!
Make use of the time that your kids are napping to do the same. Sometimes its ok if the laundry doesn’t get folded right away or there are dishes in the sink. By taking the time to replenish yourself, you are going to be more available for your kids.
Happy snoozing! Zzzzz
If you are looking for direction on optimizing your overall health and wellness, or for support in implementing a whole food nutrient dense diet, please reach out for a FREE discovery call today!
Ballantyne, S. (2017). Paleo Principles. Las Vegas, NV: Victory Belt Publishing.
Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. (2007, December 18). The Characteristics of Sleep. Retrieved from Healthy Sleep: http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/ healthy/science/what/characteristics
Nutritional Therapy Association (2019). Sleep, Stress, and Movement: Student Guide. Olympia, WA: Nutritional Therapy Association, Inc.