Happy Sleep

March 7, 2013 at 7:30 pm

I’ve been fluctuating between severely-sleep-deprived and mildly-sleep-deprived for most of my life. Before having children, I had my own night-owl tendencies to blame. After having children, I wished I could go back in time and yell at my former self, “Sleep while you can!!!!!” I was utterly unprepared for the whiplash of new-parent sleep-loss. Honestly, I think last year’s craziness was partially just nine years of chronic sleep-deprivation pushing me to my breaking point. Sleep is so important, but its usually in short supply when you’re a mom, especially if you’ve chosen “night-time parenting” as your side-job.

I want you to get more sleep. I want your babies (small and large) to get more sleep. Here are some things you might want to try, if that’s what you want as well.


1) Music

I’ve been really interested in sound lately. I’m reading a book called Healing at the Speed of Sound: How What We Hear Transforms Our Brains and Lives. I love these words from the preface, “When we speak of being of ‘sound mind and body,’ we seldom realize that sound itself is the root of being. That sound itself is the route to acquire those things we want so much, a sound mind and body.” And these words from the introduction, “We may choose organic good at the supermarket and avoid inhaling others’ cigarette smoke, yet we rarely pay attention to the equally positive or negative health impacts of sound, the other thing we put in our bodies.” I am loving thinking about the concept of “sound nutrition.” Great stuff.

The book doesn’t go into much detail about sound and sleep, but I’ve done my own research and found evidence that listening to relaxing music before bed can significantly improve sleep quality and mood (see here). I decided to test this out with my own kids. For the past week we have been playing relaxing music in the hallway between my children’s bedrooms while they’re getting ready for bed and falling asleep. My two littlest ones, who are often waking at night and climbing into bed with us, have remained asleep in their own room for significantly more time this past week than is typical for them. I’m definitely keeping up this new practice! If there are special songs your children heard often in the womb, those may be especially helpful at night-time.

2) Clean air

You may already be aware of my houseplant addiction. I love plants. We recently put two plants in our littles’ bedroom. So I got wondering whether they might also be contributing to the better sleep my youngest children have been experiencing. It’s entirely possible. Air pollution has been linked to sleep problems. Dry air can also lead to congestion and impair breathing. Houseplants clean toxins from the air and release oxygen and moisture. All of these things should have a positive impact on sleep quality. Try putting a plant or two in your bedrooms. Be careful to choose non-toxic varieties if your children are prone to eat everything in sight. One of my favorite books is How to Grow Fresh Air. You can check it out to learn more about the best plants for air purification, or see this post.

3) Touch

Touch is powerful and healing. Loving touch releases oxytocin, reducing stress/anxiety and relaxing the mind and body. Studies indicate that regular massages before bedtime can greatly improve infant sleep. I know that receiving a massage from my husband was sometimes the only way I was able to fall asleep (or go back to sleep in the middle of the night) during last year’s most difficult nights. Infants who receive regular massages at bedtime have higher night-time melatonin levels. Melatonin is the hormone that produces drowsiness and higher levels improve sleep. Even if your children still wake up at night, giving them a nightly reminder of your love and affection certainly wouldn’t hurt.

4) Light

Adjusting your children’s “light diet” could help them sleep better at night. The key is to increase their exposure to light during the day and reduce their exposure to light before bed and during the night. One study found, “Babies who slept well at night were exposed to significantly more light in the early afternoon period” (source). In addition, cutting back on “screen-time” at the end of the day will improve sleep quality. Bright screens and electromagnetic radiation reduce melatonin levels, so any wireless devices or monitors will wreak havoc on your kids’ (and your) sleep. On the days when my little ones go outside to play in the afternoon sunshine, they always sleep better at night. When we’re cooped-up inside because of weather or illness, our sleep suffers. Kids need a daily dose of sunshine for a variety of health reasons, including better sleep. The more you can bring your family’s “light diet” in line with natural rhythms, the more sleep you’ll enjoy.

5) Food

What you eat and when you eat can help or hurt your ability to rest. For instance, I made some dark (very dark) mint chocolate truffles last weekend. And I made the mistake of giving one to my two youngest kids after dinnertime. Those things were coated in cocoa powder… we’re talking mega-dose of dark chocolate here. Bad idea. Those kids took forever to fall asleep and even then they kept waking up wired and ready to play. Chocolate does contain caffeine-like substances, and the darker varieties contain the most. On the flip side, there are foods that contain small quantities of melatonin (almonds, sunflower seeds, flax, oats, etc.). My kids haven’t been big nut fans, but you might consider making some homemade granola for a small bedtime snack. Combining carbs with tryptophan-containing foods, like milk, boosts the body’s melatonin levels. In general, making sure kids have a balanced evening meal to keep their blood-sugar stable will benefit their sleep.

Many of the additives in processed foods can produce sleep disturbances. For instance, on nights when my children wake frequently with night terrors or anxiety, I can usually trace it back to something they had eaten earlier in the day (candy, junk food, etc.) with artificial colors added… especially red. I remember last year, after receiving loads of Easter candy at an extended-family event, my son spent several nights screaming and inconsolable. My second daughter spent much of her “terrible two” years throwing horrific tantrums. In retrospect, I feel confident that the food coloring I used to add to her yogurt to make it more “fun” was probably largely to blame. Oh my… the things you learn. You may want to consider eliminating some foods your child could be reacting to. Read more about sleep disturbance and insomnia at The Food Intolerance Network.

6) Other stuff

I don’t have time to go into detail on these, but you may also want to try:

  • Increasing physical activity. Exercise during the day will benefit sleep quality.
  • Magnesium. It’s an anti-stress mineral and improves sleep. A bath with magnesium crystals or a cup of “Natural Calm” before bed may help.
  • Emotional release. What’s the emotional climate like in your home? Is your child experiencing high stress levels? These will impact his/her sleep. Do what you can to reduce tension and increase the peace and love in your child’s heart.

Please share any other tips you’ve seen success with!