Breaking the rules and putting guilt to bed

As you know, I haven’t been very good at keeping to my sleep schedule so far. There’s always something to distract me from my bedtime, whether it’s a night out with friends, the final chapter of my book or a plumbing emergency (don’t ask!)…..And then, of course, I’ve been feeling guilty about my lack of self-discipline. Seriously, how difficult can it be to make sure I go to bed at the same time each night? I’m a grown adult after all!

Yesterday afternoon, I was flicking through Sammy Margo’s book The Good Sleep Guide, when a few key sentences leaped off the page and made me feel very happy. The sentences in point were:

“A regular bedtime routine is essential for creating good sleep habits. The routine should be calm and gentle. Ideally you should try to go to bed at the same time each night but that isn’t always possible or practical. The key is to teach yourself to fall asleep whenever you do get to bed, and to establish a progression of thought that will allow you to fall asleep. Most important, the routine should be as consistent as you can make it.” (page 68, my emphasis added)

When I read this, I felt a sense of relief, which surprised me. Until then, I hadn’t appreciated that trying (and then failing) to rigidly stick to my sleep schedule was making me feel a little anxious.  Sammy Margo’s advice – being less prescriptive and (in my view) more realistic than that of some other sleep advisors – seems like the practical solution I need. But, is the secret to good quality sleep really as simple as following a regular bedtime routine (irrespective of the time I go to bed)?

I raised this question with my friend, founder of We Love Sleep, and all-round Sleep Geek, James.  The answer, of course, is no (there are many things that contribute to getting great sleep every night – as I will soon be discovering). But, he agrees that following a consistent sleep routine will signal to the body and mind that it’s time to slow down and switch off in readiness for sleep, and this in turn will improve the quality of your sleep.

I already know that winding down before bed helps me to drift off more easily, but it seems that the key is to create cues for sleep, which then enable (or at least help) you to fall asleep anywhere at any time.  James says that if you have the time, your sleep routine could be a lengthy period of relaxation, including a warm bath, listening to music and some gentle stretching for example. Alternatively, it could be as simple as drinking a mug of chamomile tea (or a glass of wine!) or watching half an hour of tv.

And so it seems that it really doesn’t matter that much if I miss my usual bedtime or if my bedtime routine only lasts half an hour, provided that it relaxes me and I try to follow it every night.

According to James, it’s about finding a sleep routine that works for you. I haven’t quite figured out what that is yet, but I’ll let you know when I do. And in the meantime, I’ll try to stop worrying about following the “rules”….

James has written an interesting article on snubbing stress-causing sleep “rules” in favour of finding your own way. You can read it here: Sleep shouldn’t be about the don’ts

And….relax

It turns out that sticking to a sleep routine is not as easy as I’d first thought.

I love my sleep, I really do. And I need plenty of it; I’d sleep for 12 hours every day if I could. Having said that, I figured that around 8 hours of sleep a night should be sufficient. Working backwards from 6am (since that’s the time I have to get up if I’m going to get up at the same time every day), I arrived at a bedtime of 10pm. That’s early, especially on the weekend. And who wants to get up at 6am on a Sunday?

Needless to say, I’m having difficulties with my new sleep schedule, and I’m only a week into it. I’ve already missed my new bedtime three times and consequently allowed myself extra time in bed the morning after to make up for it. It seems that sticking to a sleep routine and having a social life aren’t the most compatible.

I am enjoying the wind down period before bed, however. 8:30pm is now my official cut-off time for work or anything that requires alert thinking, and for those nights that I’ve stuck to it (most of them, honest!), I’ve definitely noticed that I fall asleep more easily. Scheduling time into my day to relax feels strange at first (it’s not very often that I plan time to relax without feeling guilty about it) but, oh what a pleasure! Taking a warm bath, reading a magazine, or preferably, reading a magazine in a warm bath, really do help to relieve anxiety and switch off a busy mind. If I’ve learnt one thing this week, it is the joy (and positive effects) of relaxation.

The start of the sleep routine

For the last week I’ve been keeping a sleep diary. Each day I’ve been recording my movements in the few hours before bedtime, how well I sleep each night and how I feel the following morning. Here’s the results:

Monday night / Tuesday morning: Portuguese lesson, make dinner for me and my other half (eat late), read book in bed on how to sleep well. It has the opposite effect – I’m wide awake thinking about sleep tips when I should be sleeping, grrrr! Spend the night tossing and turning, dreaming about writing this blog! Up at 7am feeling grumpy.

Tuesday night / Wednesday morning: Lovely warm bath with lots of posh bubbles and early to bed at 10:30pm, sleep soundly all night long. Up at 6am, but surprisingly feeling fine (other half has decided to make Mondays and Wednesdays his gym before work days and I’m trying to fit in so as to keep our sleep schedules in line…I wonder how long this is going to last…).

Wednesday night / Thursday morning: Other half is out tonight so I work late (and at the same time manage to eat a whole Easter egg, not sure how that happened!). Hit the sack about 12:30am, but don’t fall asleep until after 1am as I’m planning my next day’s work in my head. Other half returns quietly at 2am….ha, I wish: lights go on, lots of stomping, teeth brushing and a garbled summary of his night (which involves him telling me the same thing three times) before he crashes out, leaving me wide awake again. Up at 7am, feeling like I had a night out, but without the fun!

Thursday night / Friday morning: Watch the first political debate on tv and stay up chatting about it with my other half. Go to bed with my head buzzing…Wake up feeling cold, other half has stolen all the covers (again!). Wake up at 7am, sleepy….

Friday night / Saturday morning: Out for dinner and one too many drinks with friends. Fall into bed at about 3am and asleep before my head hits the pillow. Wake up needing water at 8am and doze until 10:30am.

Saturday night / Sunday morning: Night in with my other half, I cook us pasta with lamb ragu a la Jamie Oliver. Out like a light at 11:00pm and enjoy a Sunday morning lie-in until about 10am.

Sunday night / Monday morning: Read the Sunday papers (well, the magazine supplements anyway) in bed. Feeling wide awake at 11pm but try to fall asleep anyway – I need my sleep for tomorrow’s early start. Fall asleep after 12pm and up at 6am, ready to start the week….maybe….

My conclusions:

  1. My sleep routine is non-existent. This is not good, according to those in the know.
  2. I get less sleep, and less good quality sleep, than I thought.
  3. Most days I wake up feeling groggy and unrefreshed.

And so to my first task: developing a sleep routine. According to sleep experts I should try to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day (which means no weekend lie-ins – eek!). Also, I should have an hour and a half wind down period before bedtime in which I do something relaxing and peaceful. The reasoning is that by establishing a relaxing bedtime routine, I am preparing my mind for sleep. Here goes……