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Katrina Alcorn

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8 Things That Get Me Through the Night

Posted: 11/07/11 10:43 AM ET

I have never been a great sleeper -- it takes me a long time to fall asleep, and I wake easily. Before kids, I managed the random bout of insomnia by sleeping in the next day, or taking a nap on the weekend. But when I had kids, it was like someone with a bad sense of direction becoming a taxi driver. My minor flaw became the dominant theme of my life.

A story in the New York Times about working moms and their sleep problems got me thinking about my own. Because, as the author points out, women's sleep problems may start when they have their first child -- but they don't end there.


One of the cruel jokes of motherhood is that the sleeplessness of pregnancy, followed by the sleeplessness generated by an infant (a period in which a staggering -- truly -- 84 percent of women experience insomnia), is not followed by a makeup period of rest. It is merely the setup for what can become a permanent modus operandi.

I expected to slog through the early months with an infant, bleary-eyed from the nighttime nursing and diaper changes. But eventually, my kids learned to use the potty and sleep in their own beds, often without waking me.

And yet, I still wake up when I hear one of them cough from the next room, or murmur in their sleep. And sometimes, for no apparent reason at all, my eyes just pop open at 3 a.m. Then my mind starts racing with all the things I have to do the next day. As I become more awake, I panic about the fact that I'm still awake. I have to get some sleep. If I don't sleep I'll be a wreck tomorrow. Which only makes the situation worse, of course.

According to the story, I'm not alone in this. About three out of 10 women use some form of sleep aid a few times a week or more, and we're twice as likely as men to use prescription aids. The author says our problem is not that our children keep us awake, but that we do. So why won't we sleep? Are we neurotic? Are we perfectionists? Are we doing something wrong?

Dr. Meir Kryger, director of sleep medicine research and education at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, Conn., said women "are really paying the price in sleep for their current role in society." Given their often-dueling roles as both a breadwinner and primary caregiver, "they have way more problems with insomnia."

Bingo. There is so much pressure to be on at work, and on again at home. There are so many absurd details in our heads and so little time to process through them. (Examples from my own racing 2 a.m. thoughts: Did I send the letter to the parents about that preschool thing? Did I send that important email to my client? I hope he took it the right way; it's so easy to offend people on email... Why hasn't the city come to pick up the dead raccoon on the other side of our back fence? It's disgusting... Oh, jeez, I forgot to make the orthodontist appointment for Ruby again...)

As you may have guessed, I'm one of those women who has "prescription sleep aids," but I'm careful not to take them every night. Since my daughter was born, eight years ago, I've slowly cobbled together a group of coping mechanisms to get me through the night.

1. No sugar.

Sugar before bed makes it hard for me to settle down, and then when I do, it gives me wacky, psychedelic dreams and I wake up exhausted. I've had to give up my love of New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream, which, frankly, is a good thing.

2. No alcohol.

Alcohol helps me fall asleep, but its cruel prank is it wakes me up three hours later. Alcohol breaking down into sugar while you sleep, and becomes a stimulant. I guess as I've gotten older, I've gotten more sensitive to it. Even one glass of wine will have me zinging awake at 3 a.m. That's been harder to give up than the ice cream.

3. No work.

If I work past 9 or 10 p.m., I get all wired and it's hard to rest. If I need to work late, I'll often go to bed early and get up at 5 a.m. to finish instead.

4. Read paper, not a screen.

Reading distracts me from the details of my day and settles my brain before sleep. But if I read on my iPad, the light from the screen wakes me up, so if I'm having trouble settling down, I switch to an old-fashioned book or magazine. I also have to be careful about what I read. No thrillers, no murders, no global warming, and ideally, nothing work-related.

5. Exercise.

Either cardio exercise or yoga early in the day if I can fit it in -- both help me sleep better at night.

6. Three counts in, six counts out

Sometimes, when I wake up at 3 a.m. and I know I'm awake, I can lull myself back to sleep my focusing on my breath. Here's the trick: The out breath should be twice as long as the in-breath, and I have to really concentrate on relaxing during the out breath. This simple technique stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system; the calming part of your nervous system.

7. Self-hypnosis.

I'm a big fan of the Andrew Johnson self-hypnosis apps for the iPhone. There's one specifically designed to help you fall asleep, and others on a range of topics, from letting go of worries, being a positive thinker and quitting smoking. He has the most wonderful Scottish brogue that just purrs me into Dreamland.

8. Melatonin.

About once a week I use a Melatonin spray that goes under the tongue to help it work faster. This is the one that was recommended to me by a naturopath. If I don't have Melatonin, I sometimes use Benadryl.

What about you? What gets you through the night?

 

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