If you and your family aren’t sleeping well during this global pandemic, you aren’t alone. Almost every person I know is doing anything but getting a good night’s rest. COVID-19 has us anxious. If you’re like my family, there’s been so many changes that have caused us some serious disruption. Both of us are working from home, we’re helping four children distance-learn, and our house is now where we spend every waking (and sleeping) hour. There’s bickering, hyperactivity, and lots of big feelings, even with a solid routine in place.
My four kids have gone back to waking up multiple times a night like they used to as newborns. We’ve had at least one child in our bed at least three nights out of every week. (To every one of us who swore we’d never co-sleep, the joke is on us.) My husband has fallen asleep in a twin bed on multiple occasions, curled up with whichever kid is struggling at that time. My children are having more bad dreams, waking up too early, and staying up too late, claiming, “I’m not tired!” or, “I can’t fall asleep!” When they don’t sleep, we don’t sleep. The pandemic sleep disruption is not playing.
Honestly, who can blame the kids? Many of us are dealing with racing thoughts, our brains making it impossible for us to tune out our questions and concerns in lieu of getting some shut eye. Every day, my newsfeed is flooded with the latest grim details. As much as I try to avoid the statistics, press conferences, and viral tweets, sometimes I catch a glimpse and my thoughts spiral. We can’t be 100% shielded from the reality, meaning, many of us are walking zombies.
There’s simply not enough coffee in the world to fix this issue, and most of us know that sleep is important. Like, really important. A lack of enough quality sleep can have serious health consequences. Ten years of research shows that getting less than seven hours of sleep at night can contribute to obesity, impaired glucose tolerance, heart disease and hypertension, anxiety symptoms, depressed mood, and alcohol use. If you’re thinking this is the last thing any of us need right now, you’d be correct.
Not only does a lack of sleep cause all sorts of health issues, it also makes us feel awful every day. It’s difficult enough to parent and work in the midst of the pandemic, but doing so while running on fumes is even worse. According to the Harvard Gazette, “Sleep is emerging as the latest casualty of the COVID-19 crisis. Too many sleepless nights can aggravate both physical and mental health problems.”
What can we do—practically? We can’t control that we’re in the midst of a public health crisis, that’s for certain. But some things are in our control. We can choose to take charge of our sleep to the best of our ability. Here are some good sleep hygiene tips:
Set a sleep schedule—and stick to it.
The Mayo Clinic stresses the importance of having a consistent sleep schedule. They stated, “Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Try to limit the difference in your sleep schedule on weeknights and weekends to no more than an hour. Being consistent reinforces your body’s sleep-wake cycle.”
Set the mood for sleep.
Commit to the same pre-bedtime routine every night, beginning about an hour before bed. This can include taking a bath (the rise and fall of body temperature can help promote drowsiness, according to Harvard), reading a few chapters of a book, or doing anything that doesn’t stress you out or get you feeling emotional or fired up. The CDC recommends that you make your bedroom quiet, relaxing, dark, and a comfortable temperature. Keep your electronic devices elsewhere. These include phones, televisions, and computers, and your clock — if you keep one on your nightstand, turn it so it faces away from you, and you won’t be tempted to watch the minutes tick by and calculate how much sleep you’ll get if you fall asleep right now (admit it, this is a thing). The Mayo Clinic adds that room-darkening shades, earplugs, and fans may help create a sleep-friendly environment. If you must keep your phone close, turning on a white noise app or an ASMR video on YouTube can help relax you.
Try this if you can’t fall asleep.
The Mayo Clinic says, if you don’t fall asleep after twenty minutes of settling down for the evening, try something relaxing. They recommend reading or listening to calming music until you’re tired. Remember, avoid screens if you want to wake up well-rested.
Watch what you eat and drink.
Before bedtime, it’s a good idea to avoid eating a large meal or drinking caffeine or alcohol. The Mayo Clinic adds that nicotine usage can also disrupt sleep. Don’t to go bed too full, but don’t go to bed hungry, either.
Exercise during the day.
Exercising during the day will help you fall asleep at night more easily, according to the CDC. But not too close to bedtime, or you may be too keyed-up to sleep — the Mayo Clinic warns that exercising too close to hitting the hay could cause sleep disruption. Working out during the day, as well as spending some time outdoors, will help improve sleep.
Try not to nap.
Daytime naps can further disrupt nighttime sleep. If you must nap, limit your rest to thirty minutes, and don’t try to power nap too close to bedtime. (Although, per Sleep.org, a 20-minute nap can actually go a long way in powering you up.) Overall, instead of relying on naps to catch up on your shut-eye — because we all know that naps never work out as we plan them to anyway — work on your evening sleep instead.
It’s a good idea to call a family meeting and establish some ground rules for sleep. What is each person’s bedtime? How will they ease themselves to sleep? What time should all electronics be put away? Are we exercising often and during the day, preferably outdoors? Are we making good dietary choices that promote rest?
Getting off the roller coaster of poor sleep is much easier said than done, though the tips are straightforward and helpful. I’ve started reading every night for a half-hour before bed instead of trying to go straight to bed after watching Netflix with my husband. Reading helps me shift gears, calm my mind, and escape to another world, one that doesn’t run on coronavirus paranoia. I’ve also encouraged my kids to read, as late as they want, if they’re struggling to fall asleep after we’ve tucked them in.
If you make these positive changes and still struggle, it may be time to see your doctor and find out if you’re one of the 70 million Americans who live with a sleep disorder, including insomnia, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, or sleep apnea. Another possibility? You could have undiagnosed anxiety or another mental health disorder that directly impacts your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Taking charge of your evening siesta is critically important to your overall health. While juggling all the responsibilities that come with day-to-day life during a pandemic, remember that you truly cannot pour from an empty cup. It’s time to take charge of your sleep and help your family do the same.