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.

Wonderful sleep

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

~William Shakespeare, Macbeth

It’s clear that sleep is necessary for us all and that getting enough good quality sleep can make a huge difference to the quality of our lives.  According to sleep experts, it can make us happier, healthier, better looking and more productive.  Brilliant!

It’s also well-documented that many of us don’t get enough of this wonder remedy. Let’s face it, it’s difficult to fit in several hours of uninterrupted quality shut eye every night and work full-time, run a home, be a good partner, daughter or son and friend, keep up to date with the news, read the latest Pulitzer prize winner……and the list goes on and on. Fitting it all in and raising a child or two on the side seems like an impossibility. With endless to-do lists and the ability to work on them 24 hours a day (anyone else been up at 2am placing their Ocado order?) it’s easy to let our sleep suffer. And even when we finally allow ourselves the luxury of going to bed, exhausted, we can’t sleep or we wake in the night or we wake up feeling groggy and unrefreshed.

So, how can we attain the perfect night’s sleep, every night? With so many doctors, sleep experts, mums, next-door neighbours, etc, etc, offering their tips for getting a better night’s sleep and companies promising us our best night’s sleep ever if only we buy their bed or herbal tea, who has the time or energy to test them all out?

……Welcome to my blog, amylovessleep! I will be testing every sleep tip, trick, theory and product I can get my hands on and sharing my experiences about what actually works.

Since what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, I urge you to join me in my pursuit of life’s “chief nourisher” – wonderful sleep!