Nothing is more important to our health, happiness and productivity than getting enough high quality sleep. In this article you’ll find out why prioritising sleep is one of the best ways to ensure optimum health, and also discover how to create the ideal bedtime routine for a busy family life.
Welcome to the first installment of our three part sleep series.
I’ve been fascinated by the subject of sleep for years, and this year as part of improving my overall wellbeing, I decided to take a deep dive into the topic and learn the fundamentals and science behind getting a good night's sleep.
There’s lots of advice out there, but I wanted to set up my own personalised sleep routine, especially one that worked in a busy family with young children.
In this sleep series I break down sleep into three parts. In part one, I discuss sleep rituals and the tips that work for winding down and setting myself up for sleep before bedtime. In part two, I’ll talk about what you can do throughout the day to prepare for sleep, including foods to eat to induce sleep and also food and drinks to avoid. And finally in the last post in the series I’ll go through some of the best ways to fall into a deep restorative sleep, and what to do if sleep won’t come.
Since January, I’ve been paying much more attention to my health and wellbeing. I’m sure most of us have been feeling a little rattled after the year we all had in 2020. So when this year began, I wanted to make sure I was going into 2021 with the pillars in place to ensure my mind and body were in the best possible place for whatever the year had in store.
At the start of the year I began putting more of an emphasis on my nutritional health. I have always eaten well but knew I could do better at exploring healthier alternatives to meat, dairy and sugar. I also upped my exercise routine, and I made absolutely sure I pencilled in rest time for myself daily in the form of meditation, reading and short walks by myself. But what I never expected to discover was that giving proper attention to the quality of my sleep was possibly the most important part of my new healthier lifestyle.
When I was in my early 20’s, before the little ones arrived, I didn’t prioritize my sleep at all. I worked late into the night and rose early for either work or college. I completely underestimated how significantly my lack of sleep impacted every aspect of my wellbeing.
Thankfully over the years I’ve realised that not getting enough sleep is a significant stressor on my body, and that not getting the correct amount of good quality sleep has an effect on almost every area of my life. For that reason, soon after becoming a mum, I’ve had the same bedtime - 10pm, and wake-up time - 6 am (albeit with various wake-up times during the night when they were babies), so the amount of sleep I get is consistent. But setting myself up to ensure I’m getting the best quality sleep has always been a bit hit and miss. That’s why at the beginning of this year I made sure to put a proper sleep routine in place for myself, and the benefits have been truly amazing. We make sure our children wind down before bedtime but it’s just as important for us to do the same.
In the short term we all know what happens when we don’t get the right amount of good quality sleep. Our energy is low, we feel tired and cranky. We can feel anxious and stressed by things that may not bother us when we’ve slept well. We can even crave unhealthy foods and make bad food choices; who else has traded a healthy lunch or dinner for foods high in fat or sugar after a bad night's sleep?
On the other side of the coin, I can really feel the amazing benefits when I get the correct amount of good quality sleep. I’m more patient, I can problem solve more easily, and I’m much more productive. When I get the right amount of good quality sleep it restores me, and puts me in the best possible mindset to have a calm, fulfilling day. And that’s not only good for me, it’s good for the people around me.
Of course a busy family life can often get in the way of setting ourselves up for the optimum ‘bedtime’. Jam packed days can overflow into evenings and by the time we head to bed we can be frazzled and overtired. That’s why the night time rituals I have set for myself are so important to help me to unwind, destress and really help me to fall into a deeper, more rejuvenating sleep.
I love the way the wonderful physician and author Dr Rangan Chatterjee sums up its importance, ‘putting sleep at the top of our list of priorities is probably the biggest insurance policy you can take out on your health’. I couldn’t agree more!
Here are some of the best ways I have found to ‘switch off’ before bedtime. And ensuring I make time and space for these each evening has been one of the best things I have done for my wellbeing this year.
For me outer order has always equalled inner calm. My bedtime rituals begin just after dinner when we all do our nightly cleandown. Everyone clears plates away and then tidies away all their belongings from downstairs - shoes at the door get put away; artwork and toys get put back where they belong; and any clothes and school bags that may not have been tidied away are folded and stored. Basically a general tidy of the house is done by everyone and always takes between five and ten minutes. This means the task doesn't get left to just one person and this nightly ritual calms my mind from the clutter of the day and puts me on the right track for a great night's sleep.
We need the sleep hormone melatonin for a deep and restful sleep. This hormone naturally increases with low lighting and decreases with sunlight (or blue lights from devices). For years I’ve closed curtains, especially in summer time, and dimmed lights to help little ones unwind before bed but it’s just as important for us parents to do too. About an hour before bedtime I switch off all the lamps in our bedroom apart from one for reading, that way I'm gently winding down. Also harsh bathroom lights are a no-no; either invest in a low watt mirror light or brush teeth and take off make-up earlier in the evening so you can benefit from soothing lights before it’s time for bed. I also unplug anything with a standby light and have clocks with a dimmable LED light - the clock beside my bed is the Lumie sunrise alarm which has a button to completely turn off the display
I find that lighting lavender candles in the bedroom (blown out before sleep of course) really helps me to unwind. I often light candles while I'm sorting laundry or reading in the evenings.
Blue light ban
Like I mentioned, blue light from screens replicates daylight and before bed this light really interferes with the quality of our sleep. Around 9pm every night I turn off all screens - phones, laptops, iPads and TV’s. And about 30 minutes before bed I always read a book with a soothing cup of herbal tea.
Spoonful of honey
I heard this great tip from a friend. Just before bed I take a large teaspoon of honey. This is supposed to soothe lactic acid in the body, helping to promote a restful sleep and also regulates blood sugar so sleep isn't disturbed because of hunger during the night.
This one is particularly difficult for me. Unless I’m in a hot country or the sun is blazing here in Ireland I’m always cold! But that sleep hormone I was talking about, melatonin, likes to be cool. I now sleep in a cool bedroom and light nightwear to help me fall into a deep sleep. However if my feet are chilly I always put on socks - I just can't seem to nod off with cold feet!
Some people have a bath before bedtime but I just don't have time, so an easy way for me to relax before bed is to make myself a hot steaming cup of herbal tea - rooibos or camomile work great!
Preparing for the following day
When my head has too many tabs open I write out any must-do tasks for the following day. I sleep better knowing everything is under control and nothing has slipped through the cracks. Also preparing for the following morning like gathering together items for school or laying out clothes can help keep your mind free of any unnecessary thoughts during sleep. I do all of this at least an hour before bed so my mind has time to relax and I'm not thinking about to-do lists right before bed.
“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together” - Thomas Dekker
When you get a good night’s sleep you do a great day’s work. Onwards and upwards.
Look out for Part Two in our Sleep Series ‘What to do if Sleep Won’t Come’.