It is surprising how often patients tell me that even if they were once good sleepers, they more or less give up on sleeping well by the time they hit their 40s and 50s. Frequently, they attribute this change to having children, busy lives or emotional stress. "We don't need as much sleep as we get older, right?" they ask, with a combination of hope and resignation. Well, yes and no.
Research tells us that the amount of sleep we need actually stays relatively the same over our lifetime -- 8 to 8 1/2 hours -- and that uninterrupted, deep sleep contributes to good physical health and emotional well-being at any age.
Yet, by midlife, many of us haven't slept through the night in years and accept it as normal. Statistics show that one out of every two adults struggle with some degree of insomnia, which means over 13 percent of our population is not sleeping well. This changing sleep pattern often starts around the same time midlife hormonal shifts begin, usually accompanied by changes to our internal thermostats, increased need for bathroom visits and physical discomforts that come with age. Most people say they get out of the rhythm of sleeping deeply so that irregular sleep becomes a habit they can't break.
The truth is almost all habits can be broken by working hard to make changes to our behavior -- even if pharmaceuticals tempt us to avoid that work. Here are some simple tips you may have heard before -- from therapists, friends, parents and grandparents -- but put them into practice now and you may sleep like a baby once more.
1) A bed fit for a king (or queen!).
After years of taking care of others, by the time we hit midlife, we learn the importance of pampering ourselves. It's our time to fulfill unmet dreams, right? We may treat ourselves to special dinners, fine wine and new adventures, yet when it comes to dreamy sleep -- a luxury that we need more than any other -- we tend not to indulge. I tell my patients to spare no expense on creating an environment that invites a good night's rest. If you can afford it, start with a luxurious sized mattress -- at least a queen if you're single, king sized for couples -- or consider adjoining mattresses that can sit one box-spring if your partner is a restless sleeper. How often do you enjoy a glorious hotel bed, only to return to a smaller, uncomfortable or lumpy one at home? There's nothing like a roomy and comfy bed that routinely invites deep sleep. Add a goose down comforter and extra fluffy pillows and you have a great beginning to a good night's rest.
2) Some like it hot. Some like it cold.
Creating an inviting sleep environment isn't just about the mattress. It includes setting the proper room temperature, air flow and humidity level. Some like it hot, some like it cold. Rule of thumb? If you have a partner who likes it cold, the room has to be kept on the cool side. It's much easier to add layers to warm up than deal with being overly hot. Sweating is a frequent insomniac's complaint, but is especially problematic for large men and women, and even more so for women suffering from those flashes. Search for stylish PJs specifically designed to absorb sweat, try a humidifier or invest in silk bedding that can feel cool against your skin. Saunas can make you sleepy, but overheated bedrooms can lead to interrupted nights.
3) The sounds of silence.
Next is the ambiance. Not everyone finds waterfalls, crickets or even complete silence comforting. Fresh air may be good for sleeping -- perhaps before the industrial revolution -- but how many of us are awakened by noise from outside? It's amazing how closed windows and a simple fan can add hours of shut-eye by creating a monotonous whirring sound that blocks out a busy street, a snoring partner or a barking dog. If you like the breeze, turn the fan toward your bed. Otherwise, turn it toward the wall and use just for the sound effect. For some, a white-noise machine -- the kind found in therapists' waiting rooms or the ones that create waves, rain or bird chirping sounds -- is more conducive to sleep than complete quiet.
4) Dim, dark or in-between.
Find out the amount of light most suitable for your sleep and keep this type of lighting constant even as the sun comes up. Use black out shades if you like it dark, or a night-light if you prefer it dim. Some people believe it's healthy to wake up to natural light. For most of us, our body's time clock and circadian rhythm will tell us when is best to get out of bed. We don't need any help from a bright light -- natural or not. If your partner wakes up earlier, no lights allowed! Preparation for getting up and out has to be done outside the bedroom, away from the sleeping partner. Keeping your bedroom lighting the same, from the time you put your head down until you have to wake up will make uninterrupted sleep more likely.
5) Electronics must snooze too.
Televisions, radios, iPods, iPads, computers and even cell phones need to be out of reach so that you can disconnect -- literally and psychologically. Some people have to leave their phones ringers on to be available for elderly parents or young kids who may need them. But truly, how many are actually left on for emergencies only? A phone placed by your bed leads to an unnecessary check of the time, texts and emails, back-lit just enough to disrupt your sleep. We created non-stimulating environments for our children's naps and bedtimes, why can't we do the same for ourselves? You may be surprised how the awareness and availability of stimulation keep us from falling deeply asleep. Removing that option to connect lets us stay relaxed right through the night.
6) Keep you brain asleep.
So, you're in your delicious, comfy bed, with the right level of sound and inviting temperature, but you awaken unexpectedly. You have an ache or pain, your pillow falls onto the floor, your partner pulls the covers from your side of the bed. Or you have to use the bathroom -- and as you age, it happens more often. This is key. Do not let your brain wake up completely as you adjust your body, your bedding, not even as you find your way to the bathroom. Keep one eye closed, using only the other eye half open to guide you. Do not turn on a light. Do not look at your clock to check the time. Do not send the signal to your brain that it needs to wake up. If you trick your body and brain that it is still in a sleep state you are more likely to get back into deep sleep more easily.
7) Bedtime rituals
Lastly, bed-time rituals work to help us shift our bodies and minds from a wakeful state to a sleepy one. How many of us remember putting our kids to bed using the same routines night after night? A couple of stories, hugs and kisses calmed and soothed them. Repetitive routines help adults wind down too. Find what works for you and stick with it. Take a bath, read a book or snuggle with your mate. But, whatever your ritual is, use it routinely to fall asleep and maintain the ones above to stay that way. The result? You're more likely to sleep like a baby.
Put these behaviors into practice and see if they help you get a better night rest. If you have bedtime tips that work for you, share them with us here.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my websites at www.FaceItTheBook.com; and www.VivianDiller.com;. Friend me on Facebook (at http://www.facebook.com/Readfaceit;) or continue the conversation on Twitter.