And no, the answer wasn’t melatonin.
Something happened when I became pregnant with my daughter. I started waking up in the middle of the night. For a long time, this didn’t bother me at all. I’d wake up, do some reading, and go back to sleep.
As my daughter grew older, however, waking up in the middle of the night became problematic. It’s not too unusual to carry odd hours with an infant. It’s another story when you’re trying to balance work and a school-aged child.
For the past couple of years, I’ve tried to curb my split-sleep habit. Occasionally, I’d still wake up in the middle of the night and wind up getting some writing done. But I still spent most nights with the intention of sleeping through it without any interruption. For the most part, it worked.
Things shifted again in 2019. It seemed like no matter how hard I tried, or how desperate I was for a good night’s sleep, I kept waking up at random times like 2AM or 4AM — and then I couldn’t get back to sleep.
After several months of that, I felt exhausted. I knew that something needed to change, but I was having a hard time making anything positive happen. The coronavirus pandemic certainly didn’t help me out, either.
Basically, I was sleeping “well” for about 2 to 4 hours each night, waking up tired yet unable to fall back asleep, and then I was drowsy all day. The lack of sleep left me feeling grumpy and foggy.
Over the course of a year, I tried sleeping pills, gummy vitamins, and all sorts of supplements, but nothing seemed to help. My friends swore by things like CBD, melatonin, and lavender essential oil. And do you know what?
I was desperate enough to try them all, so, I did. But none of those suggestions actually worked for me. A lot of them made me feel even more exhausted.
After several months of experimenting with my daily routine, here are the steps that actually got me sleeping through the night with zero interruptions — save the occasional wakeup from my 6-year-old, of course.
1. I bought myself a new bed.
When my daughter was about 15 months old, a family gave me their old Sealy mattress. It was a bed when I needed a bed and had no money to buy one myself. And through the years, it served me well.
I realized last year, however, that the bed was saggy or firm in all the wrong places, and at the end of a long day, it didn’t exactly feel like a respite. For a long time, I didn’t really feel like I could invest in a brand new bed. It was my understanding that a truly good mattress was going to cost thousands of dollars, anyway, so initially, I invested in a high-end memory foam mattress topper.
That was a mistake.
For a few weeks, the mattress pad felt like heaven, but it wasn’t all that practical. It shifted around too much, ran way too hot (despite the description that it didn’t), and it still didn’t help me sleep through the night.
Back to the drawing board.
I started looking up new mattresses and zeroed in on adjustable beds. I know, I know. I’m not even forty, but as a person who was desperate for better sleep, I decided that adjustability was a bright idea. Over the years, I’ve suffered from frequent sinus infections and mixed sleep apnea. I might as well get gravity on my side.
After a bit of research, I picked out Nectar’s “Lush” mattress and adjustable bed frame. I was wary about buying a bed on the internet but noticed the company offered a pretty good trial period and multiple options for financing. The also have a “forever” guarantee.
When all was said and done, I spent about $2,000 for the mattress and bed frame and made interest-free payments. And I felt an almost immediate difference in my quality of sleep.
Of course, a new bed wasn’t the only improvement I had to make for quality sleep. It helped me sleep better and have less back pain, but it didn’t stop me from waking up in the middle of the night. Not on its own, anyway. That was a bit of a disappointment since I hoped the solution to my poor sleep would be a simple one.
But in reality, my solution took lots of tweaking.
2. I started exercising again. (Not a lot.)
If you’ve read much of my work, you might know that I have a difficult relationship with exercise. Actually, routines of any kind are hard for me to manage. I’m the type of neurodivergent person whose routine is more about a lack of one.
Exercise is no exception to this struggle. I’m not good at doing anything that doesn’t come naturally to me. As a large woman with chronic pain and lipedema, I also have poor mobility. Actually, it’s gone seriously downhill during the pandemic now that I spend so much time at home.
I’ve read enough about healthy sleep habits to understand that exercise plays an important role in regulating our sleep cycles. But I needed to make it an actual habit instead of just another thought on my back burner.
Since I’ve been working so hard on intuitive eating in 2020, I decided to follow the same principles when it comes to exercise. That means committing myself to “joyful movement” — exercise that feels good without leaving me feeling drained or guilty.
In the past, I’ve only exercised to lose weight and it became a part of my eating disorder. Today, I exercise to feel good in the moment and sleep better. No pressure. It was important to me to start out slow and do something I actually like, and I discovered that low-pressure walking videos are my speed. Just 15 minutes, once or twice a day.
Here’s the first video I started out with. I went over to YouTube and searched for “80s music walking video” and there it was. For me, 80s tunes always put me in a better mood, and this particular workout doesn’t trigger any negative thoughts of restriction or bring up the whole diet culture mentality.
3. I finally found a great weighted blanket.
As the weather turned colder, I decided to invest in some new flannel sheets. I picked out a pink set with unicorns and a grey one with polar bears. It seemed like a good time to reevaluate my blankets too.
For a long time, I’d been looking for the perfect weighted blanket, but nothing seemed to work out quite right. Most blankets weren’t heavy enough, or they were too large. When I tried to get a custom order done through Etsy, the seller never came through.
Eventually, I found a 13 pound blanket on sale at Target. It wasn’t as heavy as I wanted, but it was pink and it didn’t break the bank. And it was okay, for a while, but tying the innards to the duvet cover was tedious and cumbersome. The cover didn’t hold up too well in the wash, either. To be honest, I wasn’t really a fan of the shifting glass beads.
Once I knew I wanted to replace that weighted blanket, I began Googling “velvet quilts” instead. For whatever reason, I wanted something that looked nice and felt good. I must have looked at 50 different blankets when I finally saw the Bearaby Velvet Napper.
I had a pretty heated debate with myself about whether or not I should buy the blanket, but I did and haven’t regretted it once since it arrived. The only tough thing is that I sure feel the 25 pounds when I carry it up or down the stairs, but other than that, I just love it. It’s heavy, soft, comfy, quiet, and gorgeous.
4. I began using a Happy Light every day.
Like a lot of folks with sedentary careers, I don’t get a whole lot of natural sunlight because I don’t spend much time outdoors. It’s not that I don’t like the outdoors. But once again, it’s part of a routine I’ve never successfully developed. Besides, I’ve got a bit of an agoraphobia problem that’s only gotten worse during the pandemic.
But sunlight is important for a healthy sleep cycle, right? That’s what the experts say. So, I decided that 2020 was the year to finally invest in a lightbox.
I’d thought about getting a lightbox before since I do often suffer from some seasonal depression, but hadn’t gotten around to it. Then one day, the Target app suggested a travel “happy light” for only $40 and I decided to take the plunge.
Do you know what? I love my crazy bright happy light. I use it every day in the comfort of my living room, and I really do feel a difference if I skip a day or two (I’m more lethargic during the day if I don’t regularly flip it on for about 30 to 60 minutes).
5. I implemented specific phone rules for myself.
Perhaps the hardest change I made was this: I told myself that I was no longer allowed to use my phone if I woke up in the middle of the night. In the past, I often decided to “be productive” and get some work done as long as I couldn’t sleep. But I knew I was creating bigger problems for myself.
Sure, it’s “nice” to finish a blog post when I can’t sleep, but it usually leaves me feeling drained during my daytime hours.
It was hard to tell myself no more 2AM writing, and even harder to put an end to my aimless scrolling on social media whenever I couldn’t sleep. But it also got easier to tell myself no the more times I did it.
These days? Well, these days, I sleep through the night, so the temptation to use my phone in the wee hours of the morning doesn’t creep up like it used to. However, I’m so pleased with my sleep quality that I know I will tell myself no on the rare chance that I do wake up in the middle of the night.
6. I started playing hypnotic sleep stories all night long.
Out of all the changes I’ve made to get better sleep, this might be my favorite. I started using self-hypnosis through apps like Sleep by Wysa and SuccessMinds long before the pandemic, but in the past couple of months, I began seeking out new sleep stories.
Then, I decided to search for “Christmas sleep stories,” and YouTube’s algorithms recommended a channel I’d never heard of before: New Horizons.
Now, New Horizons offers many different hypnotic audios on YouTube, including a variety for teenagers and adults. Even so, it’s their children’s playlists that seem to have really turned my nights around.
Typically, it’s recommended that you listen to sleep stories with headphones or earbuds, but I’m not a fan of either one. Especially not when I’m sleeping. So, I just pick a playlist each night and play it with my phone set up on my nightstand. If I set the sound a bit too low, it scares me to death in the middle of the night when the speaking starts up after a long pause. Like a horrible whisper jump-scare.
But, if I set the volume high enough to feel just “a bit too loud,” I find it works perfectly all night. If my daughter wakes me up in the middle of the night, the sleep stories help me get back to sleep.
Oddly enough, I find myself looking forward to bedtime partly because I enjoy the sleep stories so much, and my daughter enjoys them too. We typically fall asleep before the story ends. Lately, we keep going back to the same Christmas playlist, though we vary the first track each night.
Prolonged sleep disturbances are stressful. Part of the problem is that they’re so individual yet we’re often peppered with one hundred and one “universal” answers. It can be so discouraging when the sleep gummies or oil our friends swear by do absolutely nothing for us. Of course, such stress only makes the problem harder to overcome.
There was a time when I looked at all of the stress in my life as a single working mom and feared my sleep would never get back on track. Over the course of the past year, my lipedema has progressed dramatically, my endometriosis has flared up more than ever, and I entered perimenopause — a period that’s widely known for causing sleep disruptions.
At the same time, my mother’s health declined (she’s in hospice care), my sister’s gone into liver failure, and my friend’s baby has a rare and aggressive form of cancer. It’s just… life and we all have stuff that keeps us up at night, but knowing that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to rest.
I’ve definitely felt my mental health suffer this year on top of my physical ailments, so I’m not going to lie and say that sleeping through the night has solved all of those problems. Even so, sleeping through the night has been an incredible blessing — it’s like one great weight has been lifted off my chest. And that makes it a bit easier to handle other stressors.
Despite everything else happening in my world, I really do look forward to bedtime every night now. Yes, I’m still battling occasional daytime sleepiness and brain fog, but the more consistent I am with the above habits (like using the lightbox, exercising, and listening to those sleep stories) the more alert I feel.
I now get in a consistent 6 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night and I virtually never wake up before my alarm sounds. On the off chance that I do wake up much earlier before my alarm, I now find it easy to get back to sleep. After more than a year of deep misery, it’s a very welcome change.
There’s a lot that’s gone wrong this year, but I’m grateful that I finally found out what works for me to enjoy a great night’s sleep.
If you’re battling your own interrupted sleep patterns, I’d recommend that you try to attack the problem from a few different sides. Give yourself time to test out solutions. Living a good life is all about finding out what works for you.
It’s also important to try to keep our struggles in perspective. My sleep problems weren’t resolved overnight, and they weren’t created overnight either. It’s likely the same for you. Viewing our health as holistic journeys instead of finite formulas brings us so much closer to our goals.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with whatever works for you. Your wellness is worth it.