Over the past two years I have read a lot of books, articles, blogs etc, in search of ways to improve my sleep quality. I also tried a vast quantity of the recommendations I read about, often with negligible results at best. Granted, it wouldn’t have mattered what I had done because my primary sleep stumbling block was Obstructive Sleep Apnea. As long as that remained untreated, my sleep would suffer and no amount of “sleep hygiene” was going to correct it. But now I had started wearing my oral sleep appliance, it seemed like the opportune time to revisit the sleep habits that were most likely to contribute to my overall sleep improvement.
Ironically one of the ideas that struck me the most came not from reading about my own sleep disorder, but from reading over two dozen books on optimizing infant sleep. From my own experience I had gained a quick appreciation for the immensely negative impacts on health and wellbeing caused by improper sleep, so the minute I found out I was pregnant I took a keen interest in learning all I could about how to set my child up for sleeping success. I read all sorts of theories and approaches to helping your infant develop proper sleep habits, ranging from the zero crying child led style, to the full cry it out methods and everything in between.
Despite the controversy that surrounds the topic of infant sleep there was one thing that stood out in every book I read, regardless of the authors overall stance. Routine, routine, routine. The more consistent the routine and the sleeping environment, the better the baby would sleep. What struck me the most is that this isn’t something that changes over time, it remains a factor throughout childhood and your adult years.
The takeaway: Bring consistency to your sleeping habits, and your overall sleep quality will improve.
Now, I didn’t want to build a sleep routine full of “crutches” that if removed would ruin my chance of a good sleep. But, I did want to create a routine of consistency that clearly told my body “sleep is coming, it’s time to get prepared”. I wanted to ensure my body and mind were in an optimal place to fall asleep, AND maintain quality sleep throughout the various sleep cycles.
I began reviewing the sleep habits I had tried previously, what I had liked and disliked, as well as assessing each one for sustainability. It wouldn’t help to pick things that were onerous or difficult to work into my routine, they would never take root and would inevitably fall by the wayside. I also wanted the bedtime ritual to feel indulgent, something I would look forward to ending my day with so I didn’t procrastinate doing it, or worse, skip it completely.
I had made major diet changes in the past, removing gluten, caffeine, sources of added sugar, alcohol, and had even gone to a strict vegan diet for a period of time. I hadn’t noticed huge differences in my sleep, but overall I had felt better and less bloated during the day. Being pregnant, I had already eliminated caffeine, alcohol, maintained a reduced sugar intake, and reverted to a slightly easier to manage vegetarian diet for the past seven months. I had allowed some dairy and gluten back into my diet, but tried to keep it at a minimum. I felt relatively satisfied with my diet, at least satisfied that nothing I was doing in that area would be negatively impacting my over all sleep. I did plan to take a closer look at my diet and nutrition during the year, but it wasn’t something that I felt currently factored into my sleep issues.
So I turned my mind to exercise. I already worked out five (5) to six (6) times per week for an hour each day. Nothing overly strenuous during my pregnancy, but I was satisfied with my level of fitness as it related to my sleep. I also scheduled my work outs first thing in the morning so I was never exercising close to bedtime. I was, however, noticing that I was very sore in the mornings from the uncomfortable sleep positions imposed on me by my ever growing belly, in addition to some residual issues from a prior car accident. Both of which resulted in ongoing neck, lower back and hip pain. So I decided I would work in some slow deep stretches before bed to aid in my sleep, and hopefully prevent some of the morning pain/stiffness.
I then took a hard look at what I was doing right before bed. I had gotten into the habit of watching TV for an hour before heading upstairs to bed. I knew that in an ideal word I would be prepping my body for sleep in the hour before bedtime, and reducing my exposure to light (especially electronic screen light). Studies have shown that ongoing exposure to both daylight and artificial light prevents the body from producing and releasing the sleep regulating hormone melatonin. By reducing exposure to artificial light, particularly the blue light generated by electronic devices, your body naturally begins to release melatonin, which then assists in regulating your overall sleep cycles. So eliminating the usage of electronic devices and reducing ambient light would definitely need to be part of my bedtime routine.
Reading and writing were both relaxing activities that were proven to be ideal ways to wind down before bed. Writing was found to help clear your mind, and reading, as pretty much everyone has experienced at some time in their lives, has the natural ability to make your eyelids heavy with sleep never far behind. Given that both these things occupy the number one (1) spot on my list of “5 Things I Enjoy” (Post #4), it seemed like a no brainer to incorporate them into my bedtime ritual.
Then there were the personal hygiene habits that I wanted to try and pair with my bedtime ritual in hopes of making them engrained daily habits. Number one (1) on my hit list, flossing. I was a sporadic flosser. Sometimes I would do it consistently (like in the two (2) weeks leading up to my general check up at the dentist), but often I would be too tired to care and it was an easy habit to skip. I also did not want to end up toothless at sixty (60), so it was time to up my flossing game.
A close runner up on my list was that I wanted to take better care of my skin. I had always had decent skin, not perfect by any means, but pretty good. This had made me lazy with my skincare, and I regularly went to bed without removing my makeup. (I know – awful right?). But I knew my skin could be even healthier if I started to be a bit more diligent about my skin care routine. After all, wrinkles and signs of aging were going to start appearing before I knew it, so it was time to do at least a little leg work to get ahead of that speeding train. Removing my make-up and cleansing my face each night, along with a quick warm shower and high quality lotion for the rest of my skin seemed like an ideal way to relax and feel refreshed.
By making these personal hygiene habits part of my bedtime routine it would make them something I did, not something I needed to decide if I was going to do. Taking the decision making process out of it meant there would be no internal dialogue happening about whether or not I actually wanted to do it, especially at a time of day when studies suggest that will power is generally quite low.
I also decided that to bring my routine in line with a reduction in light exposure, I would invest in a nice smelling lavender candle (ideal aromatherapy scent for promoting sleep) and have my shower/lotion application via candlelight. This would be relaxing, with an indulgent vibe, and promote my body to release that all powerful melatonin.
Part of my routine would also take into account the second concrete action for improving my sleep, going to bed at the same time each night. I would accomplish this by setting a bedtime reminder on my Fitbit for 915 PM. The reminder would send an alert to my phone, and also a vibration to my watch if I happened to be away from my phone. This would be my signal that it was time to stop what I was doing and start my bedtime routine. All in an effort to ensure that I would complete my bed time routine and be closing my eyes at 10 PM each night.
So after looking at a vast array of recommended habits, and considering the things I really wanted to incorporate, I put together a bedtime routine that looked like this:
Sleep Inducing Snack/Beverage. I elected to try and eat a banana and/or almonds on nights where I felt hungry or needed a snack in the hours after dinner. These foods, along with a variety of other have been found to contain Tryptophan, which is the same sleep inducing component that brings on the food coma after having a large turkey dinner.
Also, I enjoy having a cup of tea in the evening, so I decided to choose teas that at the very least were caffeine free, but ideally herbal teas with sleep inducing qualities, such as chamomile.
The bed time reminder. I chose this time for my reminder because it allowed me approximately 45 minutes each night to complete my bedtime ritual. A long enough period of time to significantly reduces my exposure to artificial light prior to bed, but not so time consuming that it would be impossible to sustain.
915 – 930 PM:
Brush/floss/shower/lotion via candlelight. The purpose of the candle was three fold. To reduce my exposure to artificial light, create a calming environment, and target my sense of smell with aromatherapy which encouraged sleep.
Brush and floss my teeth. I tucked these personal hygiene steps into the beginning of my routine to ensure I didn’t rush through or skip over them. I couldn’t get into the nice warm shower until these two things were done.
A five (5) minute warm shower with peppermint body scrub, and a foaming face cleanser. The five (5) minutes turns into ten (10) pretty much every night, but I have some grace time built into the routine and this was the ideal place to use it. I don’t wash my hair during this shower (I don’t want to have to deal with styling it afterwards), so I just throw it up in a bun and focus on relaxation and skin care. In the morning my shower is always rushed and just another thing on the to do list, so having a candlelit shower that was all about taking the time to relax felt indulgent. The peppermint body scrub opens up my airways, is soothing for any aching muscles, and leaves my skin with a fresh glow. Incorporating the facial cleanse into the shower gives me a few more precious minutes to just enjoy the warmth of the shower.
I am a habitually cold person, so having the shower each night really helps me to warm up, making the yoga which follows much more enjoyable, and overall relaxing my muscles before bed. I think my husband has also appreciated that I am not always crawling into bed with freezing cold feet that tend to float his way in search of warmth.
After the shower I apply a speciality line of body products designed for pregnant women. I use the “Spoiled Mama” pregnant bump gloss and body butter (these products were an early pregnancy gift from my husband after he listened to me gripe about my dread of stretch marks!) 7 months in and no stretch marks yet! I find both products super hydrating with the added bonus of being completely vegan and toxin free. The essential oils they contain also have a very nice sleepy time effect.
930 – 945 PM:
After applying my lotion I go back to my bedroom and keep the lights extremely low. I sit on the floor and follow a guided seven (7) minute deep stretch and relaxation yoga routine (there are tons of these on YouTube, I just surfed until I found one that had relaxing music and postures that worked with my pregnant belly.)
I had thought about incorporating mediation into my routine, but elected to go with yoga for the additional sleep benefits of the stretching. I do, however, make a very conscious effort to focus on my breathing and clear my mind during the yoga.
After the yoga I move to my bed where I write a few lines in my daily journal. I literally keep this to a small paragraph that reflects my day or whatever might be lingering on my mind. Nothing too crazy, demanding, or lengthy. Just a few moments to put pen to paper (No typing on a device this close too sleep!). I splurged a little for this part of my routine and bought a lovely journal and pen from Chapters. I love their journals, but never seemed to have a good reason to buy one. Incorporating the journal into my routine has ensured I get at least a sentence or two down each night and writing in something beautiful makes it that much more enjoyable.
I included in my journaling a spot to write down one thankful moment from the day. This forces me to look back and reflect on the good things in my day. It makes me not only appreciate the small things, but is a great way to end the day with things in perspective.
I also decided to write down one “baby moment” from each day. Here I include anything from the way the baby is growing, babies heartbeat from check-ups, crazy movements, the first time I felt hiccups etc. I felt this would be a small and manageable way to record those little moments in time that are so easily forgotten, and a treasure to look back on years down the road.
Read something relaxing in bed. By including relaxing in there I just meant that it couldn’t be work related! Something I was reading strictly for enjoyment. This was something I could look forward to every night, and a great way to end my day.
Bedtime! I haven’t been strict to the minute on this, usually I like to finish the chapter I’m reading, but by giving myself a target I have avoided losing track of time while reading, which means I have consistently turned the lights off between 955-1000 PM each night.
I started the routine in the second week of January and have been loving it. By 1000 PM I feel calm, relaxed, and ready to drift off into a peaceful sleep. I have also noticed that I experience less muscle pain in the morning, and fall asleep much faster than before. By the time my head hits the pillow my mind is no longer racing with thoughts from the day, or worries about the following day. I’ve allowed myself time to wind down and properly prepared my body for sleep.
I can definitely see the value in continuing this ritual on a daily basis! I think everyone deserves a sleep routine that prepares their body for sleep. Sleep is after all the most healing and rejuvenating thing we can do for our physical and mental well being, so giving your body the time to prepare helps allow for optimal sleep, something we should all be striving for if we want to be the best version of ourselves.