Photo by Anthony Tran

A typical mom question I get is “My baby is sleeping great now, but I still can’t sleep! What can I do about it?”

I can so empathize with the frustration that these moms are feeling. It can feel so defeating to know everybody else is sleeping, but you can’t and don’t know why.

My expertise is in pediatric sleep. But because I like to give moms good resources when they ask me questions, I’ve dived deeper into the world of sleepless momhood.

What is insomnia? 

Everybody will have experienced acute insomnia at one point- it’s the one bad night because of an upcoming event for instance. And that’s not the type I’ll be talking about here.

Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, is disrupted sleep on at least three nights a week for three months or more. More women than men are impacted by it, and 1 in 7 adults and a whopping 1 in 4 women have chronic insomnia. Chronic insomnia has all of the negative health implications associated with lack of sleep.

Why does it happen

There are lots of different reasons why you could have insomnia, and frequently it’s a combination of things. It won’t take you too long to figure out if you fall into the chronic insomniac category. But digging for your causes may be a little bit more challenging. Here are the questions I suggest you ask yourself to find out what could be going on so you can start working on sleeping better again.

1. How does your sleep environment look like?

 

Just like I recommend for kids of all ages, you will benefit from a sleep environment that is free of distractions, dark, and cool. Some adults sleep better with white noise, while others- my husband included- hate it, so this is trial and error. 

Your bed should be comfortable. Did you know that a mattress needs replacing every so often? According to this source, as early as seven years may be appropriate for you.   

While I don’t necessarily subscribe to Feng Shui,  I have observed that my sleep benefits from a clutter-free room. There are two reasons I can see, why this could be the case. One, we all experience mini wake ups throughout the night. We are typically able to fall back asleep, but we will rouse fully if something has changed (think open door when falling asleep, closed door when having a mini wake up). With a cluttered room, the chances are that you see shadows, have a mini wake up in a different position than when you fell asleep, etc. and the clutter gets your attention and you wake up fully. Two, a cluttered environment is more stressful- at least to me- so falling asleep may merely be harder as it would be in a clutter-free environment.

2.  Are you taking any medications or supplements that could cause bad sleep?

Medications will have possible side effects listed, so this should be relatively easy. If you find you have to take something, and it’s possibly impacting your sleep, talk to your doctor about it.

Supplements can be a little trickier. The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements, so what you buy may not be what you’re getting, both when it comes to ingredients and potency. So while something may on paper not be negatively impacting sleep, either something else that’s in the bottle but isn’t listed or the dosage you’re getting may. Educating yourself on supplements and checking if an organization like NFS certifies them, may help here.

3. Is your schedule regular?

Do you have a regular schedule day in and day out- weekends included? Our systems do best when we keep to a regular bed and wake up time. That’s part of the magic behind getting our kids to sleep well, and it’s a prerequisite for adults, too.

4. Do you expose yourself to the right light?

Blue light exposure too close to bedtime (as in 1-2 hours before going to bed) is detrimental to our ability to fall asleep. It’s well explained here but in a nutshell: light signals the brain that melatonin isn’t needed (yet), consequently melatonin isn’t made, and without enough melatonin, falling asleep is harder. Additionally, try to get some good natural light exposure whenever possible during the daytime. While darkness stimulates melatonin production, daylight at the right times (aka our waking hours) will help set our biological clock, too.

5. Are you physically active enough?

Just as exercise and play can help tire kids’ bodies out and promote a good night’s sleep, being active during the day can make for a more restful night in adults, too. Most moms that have to chase young kids around all day won’t have issues checking this off the list, but as a society, we are too sedentary. The recommendation is to get at least 30min of physical activity a day, and it doesn’t have to be in a gym, walking is just fine. I can tell a huge difference in sleep quality when I got a workout in that day. Make sure to know how physical activity and exercise affects you though- if I work out in the evening, it will take me longer to fall asleep. 

6. What do you eat and drink?

How you eat may influence how well you sleep. A well-nourished body is primed for better sleep. If you’re doing it all right already and still have issues especially with sleeping through, your protein to carbohydrate ration or the timing of when you eat what may be influencing your night time.

I recently came across this very interesting mechanism between protein and carbohydrate consumption and sleep. 

What kicked my research off was a trip to the doctor for my annual check up, mentioning that I sometimes have a hard time going back to sleep when waking up at night. He suggested I try 5HTP, a supplement. We had a nice chat about my view on the safety- or lack thereof- of supplements, and when I came home I researched 5HTP. I found out that our brain uses it to make the neurotransmitter serotonin,  which in adequate levels helps us maintain sleep, in other words sleep without disruptions. There are real potential negative side effects of taking 5HTP though, especially if you have to take certain medications. This alone makes me say no thanks, even though I don’t take any medications.

Drs. Wurtman who co-authored the “Serotonin Power Diet” suggest that eating a snack made up of healthy carbs sans protein or fat before going to bed will increase the uptake of tryptophan, which is a building block of serotonin and melatonin, thus helping with sleep. Eating a small serving of popcorn sounds a lot better than popping a pill that has the potential to cause seizures.

Caffeine and Alcohol

Caffeine and alcohol can both negatively impact sleep. It depends on the amounts, when you consume it and how sensitive you are. As a rule of thumb, try to stop drinking and eating caffeine-containing beverages and foods (like chocolate) after 3 pm. Caffeine binds to the same receptors in our brains as adenosine, which is a neurotransmitter that makes us sleepy; this is why coffee helps to make us feel alert, it literally moves into place of what makes us feel tired

Alcohol, on the other hand, may make you fall asleep more quickly but can impact your ability to sleep through the night and cause fragmented sleep.

7. Are there any medical reasons for bad sleep?

Medical reasons can be physical or psychological and always warrant a visit with your healthcare provider. Things you should get checked out are pain symptoms- and I’m mentioning this here not because I think you can’t reason through this on your own, but because as moms we sometimes need to be told that it’s not only ok but essential to take care of ourselves.

Another thing to get checked when you’re experiencing sleep issues are your thyroid hormones. Our bodies go through many hormonal changes during pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period. Even if you haven’t had any thyroid issues previously, something can be off afterward. Both hypo- and hyperthyroidism can negatively impact sleep.

While you’re at it, get your vitamin D level checked out. Adequate Vitamin D levels are necessary for serotonin production.  As discussed in point 6, enough serotonin allows us to sleep better. 

Lastly, another big offender that will affect sleep is sleep apnea. If your partner tells you that you snore, it’s definitely worth investigating in this direction.

Lack of sleep can cause depression symptoms and anxiety, and the same is true the other way round: Depression and anxiety will impact your sleep. Here’s a test you can take to see if this is something you need to look into.

8. Do you have a restless mind?

Do you have trouble letting go of things that happened during the day? Or maybe you wake up often because you anticipate having to be awake? Or you wake up and get angry at yourself because now it’s 2 am and you know you only have until 6 am when you have to get up for good? This is something I think every mom experiences. It’s like phantom pain, and you feel like you need to be awake when you don’t. I think it’s easy to fall into this pattern when you had to attend to your Newborn at all hours of the day and night for the first couple of months. I would be more surprised if someone told me they never experienced this at all. Afterall it’s very much like shift work, which is known risk factor for developing insomnia.

What can help here is to incorporate meditations into your day. I find the easiest way to get started is with guided meditations, and my favorite app right now is Simple Habit.

If you feel that you need more profound help with turning the ship around, CBTi is an excellent treatment option. It doesn’t involve taking drugs and is effective in addressing chronic insomnia.

9. Do you feel like you have no support?

The last thing I want to talk about is the feeling of being alone with it all. Not necessarily your sleeplessness, but the demands that parenthood brings. A lot of moms seem to feel this way, and a good friend of mine refers to it as the mental load of motherhood. I notice it has an impact more in moms that “want to do it all”- and that can be SAHMs and gainfully employed moms alike. 

If you have a partner you share this parenting journey with, you may be able to recruit more of his or her help and feel less alone with it. Often all it takes is making them aware. 

If you’re parenting alone, maybe look into other ways to lighten your load- find someone to talk with, get a babysitter now and then, recruit family or friends if possible, and do something that’s neither work nor kid related. My neighbor refers to this practice as taking a mental health day, and it really can do wonders for your mood, relaxation and perhaps positively influence your sleep. 

From personal experience, I know that it can be tough to do this. There can be a tremendous amount of inner resistance you have to overcome- both in identifying your need for more help or shared responsibility and in making it known; especially if you- consciously or not- like to be in control (which I think was my issue here, but I digress…).

I hope these nine questions help you in finding a solution to your own sleep troubles and I would love to hear from you what you believe your biggest roadblocks are! Do you have any more question? Don’t be shy- just comment below 😉