Remember those lazy mornings laying in bed, peacefully sipping on a cup of tea and dozing until 10 am... No? Then the chances are you're a parent!
Ask most first-time mums and dads what their biggest challenge is, and the likelihood isthey will say lack of sleep.
Time is no longer your own; night and day merge into one as you pace the living room every 30 minutes, irrelevant of the hour. And the thought of some space to yourself, to eat, shower or sleep, seems like a distant memory.
Help is at hand! HELLO! Online has spoken to Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, Sleep and Energy Coach at the Capio Nightingale Hospital, for her top ten tips on getting the best sleep for new and expectant mothers.
A mother herself, Dr Nerina offers tried and tested strategies that she has used, and has been recommending to patients and clients for a number of years.
MAKE REST A PRIORITY
Resting during the day will lessen the effects of sleep deprivation as well as improving the quality of your sleep.
I've put this at the top of the list because I know that this is one of the hardest things for new mums to do. When my daughter used to nap, I'd tell myself 'I'll just tidy this away, hang the clothes out, make a few quick phone calls.' Before I knew it she was awake and needing my attention again. Why is it so hard for us to stop? Why do we think we have to keep going until everything is perfect (which, of course, it never is)?
Every time you stop and rest, it gives your mind and body the opportunity to rest and recharge. This will help you to feel better as you go through the day and also gives your brain the opportunity to do a bit of processing so there is less mental 'work' to be done when you go to sleep. In other words, you'll get less ‘thinking' REM sleep and, therefore, more deep sleep. Regularly seeking rest throughout the day is one of the most effective ways of improving sleep quality. But what constitutes a rest? Sometimes even a break of 5–10 minutes can enable the body to renew itself physically and mentally.
The idea is to stop, put the brakes on and give yourself a break. Drink a glass of water or eat a piece of fruit, stretch, breathe deeply, lie down, listen to music or just nothing at all; change channels mentally and stop thinking about the have-to-do's, must-do's and should-do's.
Use these precious moments to stop, breathe, relax, and let go of any tension you might be holding in your shoulders, back, arms and face.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU WAKE UP DURING THE NIGHT
It's inevitable you will be woken, sometimes repeatedly, during the night in the early days of your baby’s life, and I know how exhausting and frustrating this can be. However, there are a few 'tricks' you can use to get yourself back to sleep more easily each time you are woken.
First of all, be prepared. Try to have everything on hand for a quick feed or nappy change and if you have to put a light on, use a low-level bedside lamp rather than a bright overhead light.
Each time you wake up, avoid checking the time. If you do this, you are more likely to start worrying about how little sleep you will get if you don't fall asleep again. If you have to get up and check your baby, once you are back in bed try one of the following techniques to help you slide back into sleep:
- Lie on your back if this feels natural and comfortable for you
- Close your eyes and place your hands on your stomach
- Breathe in through your nose and feel your stomach inflate (rather than your chest) – feel your hands being pushed out
- Hold for a few seconds and then breathe out through your mouth Be aware of how each breath sounds and how each breath takes you to a restful place
- Repeat several times
This technique is particularly effective if combined with visualization. Imagine yourself breathing in warm, peaceful, relaxing white light, breathing out fatigue and seeing it as a grey cloud leaving your body on each exhalation.
Combine deep breathing with counting to take you deeper into relaxation and sleep. On each exhalation count one up to ten. Start over again when you get to ten.
Progressive muscle relaxation
- Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose and slowly out through your mouth
- Listen to the sound of your breath or count each exhalation
- Take ten or so deep breaths like this
- Start to become aware of physical sensations in the body. Feel your feet against the sheets on your bed. Become aware of the sensation of your feet and what they are touching
- Wriggle your toes, and then consciously relax your feet
- Think of your legs; feel the fabric of your clothes against your skin. Tighten your muscles and then relax them
- Think about your chest and stomach; feel the sheets against your arms and the mattress against your body. Tighten and then relax your muscles
- Work all the way up your body to your face relaxing every muscle as you go
- Feel your muscles becoming relaxed and the tension flowing away
IF YOU REALLY CAN'T GET TO SLEEP…
There are a couple of options here. One is to use the time to relax. In other words, abandon all attempts to sleep and allow yourself to just rest. In fact, don’t even use the word ‘sleep’. Tell yourself ‘it doesn’t matter if I don’t sleep tonight; I’m just going to use the time to REST'. It’s a bit of trickery but you might be surprised how quickly you then get to sleep – particularly if you use the technique regularly.
If you really can’t sleep, get up and do something relaxing. Read a book, sip a cup of camomile tea or warm milk, do some ironing (some of my clients swear by this one). Don’t lie in bed tossing and turning, making yourself frustrated and tired.
HYPER-SENSITIVITY TO NOISE
Many of the mothers I’ve coached have complained that they hear every slight noise their baby makes and even imagine they hear them crying. I suffered from this problem even when Maya starting sleeping through the night, and I would lie in bed tense and waiting to hear if she would cry. Not a good strategy as we all know how common it is for little ones to make strange noises during their sleep!
You may find it helpful to use some white noise to block out the sound of every tiny whimper. You can buy white noise machines or, as I do, use a fan to create background sound.
Your wind down routine sets the tone for how you will sleep throughout the night.
How do you start to prepare to go to bed? Do you rush around from one task to the next and then crash out in bed only to find that you are too tired and agitated to sleep?
Humans respond well to familiar rituals that tell our brains it's time to rest. Try to get into the habit of allowing yourself some time to wind down before going to sleep. Check the windows are closed and the doors are locked, read a book, listen to relaxing music and sip a milky caffeine-free drink. Relax in a bath for at least ten minutes and use some essential oils such as lavender to help promote sleepiness.
Avoid anything over-stimulating like sending emails or surfing the internet – both of these activities tend to cause increased REM sleep. If you watch TV before going to bed, try to watch something funny, inspiring and uplifting rather than depressing or gloomy, and avoid falling asleep in bed while watching TV.
If you are really wound up you might find it helpful to delay going to bed for twenty minutes or so to allow yourself to wind down - you are more likely to access deep sleep if you have allowed the mind and body to relax. And you are more likely to feel rejuvenated if you have had five or six hours of efficient sleep than seven or eight hours of shallow, restless sleep.
GET SOME EXERCISE
One of the hardest things to do when you are an exhausted new mum is to get moving and do some exercise. But this is one of the strategies that will give you huge benefits in terms of relieving stress and helping you to sleep more effectively.
Exercise helps reduce levels of adrenaline and other stress hormones, and boosts the production of hormones which 'repair' the body making your immune system and overall health more robust. You will spend more time in deep sleep, and it will help alleviate that 'tired but wired' feeling that can stop you relaxing.
Remember, it doesn't mean having to go to the gym or go out running. Even a 20 minute brisk walk is great exercise and can boost the production of feel good hormones, endorphins.
MIND RACING, TOO MUCH TO DO!
For deeper, more peaceful sleep, get 'to do' lists out of your head and onto paper before you go to bed.
I find it best to keep a notebook in the kitchen (not on my bedside table) and to write my list at the end of the day as part of my wind-down routine. Doing it this way keeps those 'to do' gremlins away from my sleep both physically and mentally.
CAFFEINE AND ALCOHOL
Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants – use sparingly if you're a new mum and your sleep is already being disrupted!
Caffeine has a direct impact on reducing sleep quality. The half-life of caffeine is approximately 5hours. This means that it can take up to 10 hours to completely remove all of the caffeine from your body if you drink a cup of tea or coffee. If you are having problems sleeping or are waking up feeling tired no matter how much sleep you get, minimise caffeine and increase your fluid intake by drinking more water, herbal teas and fruit juices.
I don't want to be a complete killjoy about alcohol but it will drain your energy if you are drinking every evening to wind down. Alcohol is the most commonly used sleep and relaxing aid in the world (and not just for new mothers). It initially has a sedative effect that can help you drop off to sleep.
However – and it is a big however – alcohol stops you getting good deep sleep and, if you’ve really over-indulged, it increases REM sleep so that the next day you end up feeling not only physically tired but also mentally fuzzy. If you are regularly drinking alcohol to help you sleep, ask your doctor to help you find an alternative.
YOUR SLEEP ENVIRONMENT
Keep your sleep environment free of clutter and baby’s toys. The ideal temperature for good sleep is slightly cool so keep windows open or have a fan in the room. The white noise from the fan can also help to create a white noise effect that cuts out distracting background noises and use aromatherapy oils to promote relaxation and sleep. Every night I place a few drops of lavender in a cup of hot water on the windowsill 20 minutes or so before I go to bed. Keep all mobile phones and computer equipment out of your room too. Your bedroom should look and feel like your sanctuary.
NUTRITION AND SUPPLEMENTS
In order to get good sleep, we need a good balance of the naturally produced sleep-inducing hormones serotonin and melatonin in our system. Adequate amounts of vitamin B6 and tryptophan are needed to boost these hormone levels and they are found in chicken, cheese, tofu, tuna, eggs, nuts, seeds and milk. So drinking a glass of milk before going to bed can help to induce sleep. Other sleep-inducing foods are oats and lettuce. Avoid skipping breakfast as this is vital to stabilising your blood sugar levels and helping you to produce the Melatonin that will enable you to sleep later on. Make sure your breakfast includes a source of protein eg nut butter on your toast or ground almonds on your porridge.
Herbal nightcaps – it is best to use sleeping aids (natural or pharmaceutical) only as a last resort. They should be used when other avenues have been exhausted and then only occasionally. Valerian (tablets, tincture or tea bags) is sometimes called nature’s Valium and can aid sleep for most people. Passionflower and hops also have mild sedative effects.