How I Let My Body Teach Me to Sleep
As a mother of five children, I have gone decades without it.
If I’m being honest, I’ve never been that great at it. I started having issues with insomnia when I was 17.
A year working graveyard shifts and juggling 21 credit hours in college meant I went days without sleep. Then I just got in the habit of dozing off while watching TV and wandering to bed sometime in the middle of the night … I know, I know … so bad.
When I got married, I still kept up the habit of staying up late watching TV and being the opposite of a morning person.
Then we had our first child, who was up every two and a half hours eating which lasted forever … or at least it seemed like it. Every two years we had another a baby and they were each progressively worse and worse sleepers.
But, last year, finally, my youngest kid started to sleep through the night.
And yet I was still waking up all the time.
Wide awake at 2:30am and not able to fall back asleep for hours.
Struggling with falling asleep and pretty much feeling like I was in a sleep deprived fog all the time, which was crazy because for the first time in more than a decade I had no excuse for being tired.
After I mentioned that even though I was doing everything right (other than occasionally staying up a bit too late reading) I was never feeling rested, in stepped my yoga guru, Guru Joe.
He asked what I meant by “doing everything right” -- so I listed off what I thought were all my good habits.
Waking up at the same time and sticking to a schedule, exercising 3 times a week (give or take), no caffeine after noon, no naps, no screen time (even my phone) at least 30 minutes before bedtime, quiet prayer time and then reading until I fall asleep.
Guru Joe prompted me to explain what I meant by reading until I fell asleep.
I stated it meant reading until my head actually nodded and I fell asleep, then I would put my book/Kindle down, turn out the light and fall asleep.
Apparently that’s not good.
Guru Joe stated that I needed to be going to bed earlier.
His thought was, that as a mom I had learned to completely ignore my body’s signals that it was ready for sleep. Which is necessary as a mom because that’s the name of the game: taking care of kids while exhausted.
Now that I no longer had to ignore my body saying it was bedtime, I was still so used to pushing through it or ignoring it that I had no idea when I truly needed to go to bed.
The result was a cranky, sluggish me who was hitting the wall every afternoon at 4, and getting past it by eating handfuls of chocolate chips while hiding in the pantry.
I was given a two part homework assignment.
- Start really listening to my body in the evenings and pay attention to the “it’s time for bed” cues it’s putting out.
- One night a week after the kids go to bed, no tech, no reading.
The first assignment was fine and totally reasonable.
It turns out that even though I felt like 10:00pm was a good time to start getting ready for bed, my body was actually ready around 9.
When I began paying attention to what my body was saying, it amazed me at how good I had gotten at ignoring it. When I began to yawn and rub my eyes at 8:50, I started to turn off the TV and head to bed, instead of pushing through to finish the show I was watching or wait for the last load of laundry to be done washing so I could switch it.
Yes, it meant less grown-up TV and "me time" to start going to bed an hour earlier, but I’m here to say holy cow did it make a big difference in my energy levels and attitude!
The second assignment made me break into a cold sweat. I honestly asked him … ”Um, if I can’t read before bed, what am I supposed to do?”
Please imagine my voice quivering with fear as I said it.
For almost 20 years I had been falling asleep by watching TV or reading until I dropped off to sleep.
Guru Joe wanted me to break a 20-year habit, and it made my stomach roll just thinking about it.
He suggested, yoga (and even created an amazing 20-minute practice for me to do), a puzzle, meditation, a bath (but no reading in the tub) or simply getting into bed and turning the lights out.
I’m going to add here that my husband was overjoyed at this whole assignment! His ideal bedtime is 8:30 and it’s been a balancing act, and at times a struggle, to get our schedules aligned over the last 14 years of marriage.
How did it go?
Honestly, it sucked. Like a good student, I did what Guru Joe asked but I dreaded my no tech and no reading before bed nights.
Admittedly, I did learn something. I could actually just turn out the lights and fall asleep.
I didn’t need to read until my head dropped to beat the insomnia I struggled with in the past.
My body knew that washing my face and prayer time meant it was also time to slooooow down and go to bed.
The result was, I began to go to bed sooner even on the nights when I could read.
And, wait for it.
There are some nights when I simply go to bed without TV or reading at 8:30 because I know that I am tired and I know that I can fall asleep and stay asleep without waiting until I’m utterly exhausted.
My body knew what it needed all along and I was simply ignoring it because in my mind 10:00 was a good bedtime.
I was ignoring the cues that I was ready for bed at 8:30 on some days because I thought I could get away with it, and because I was putting watching TV ahead of my health.
I’d be big liar if I didn’t say that there are still some nights where I’m watching an amazing show on TV, or reading a book I can’t put down, and I stay up hours past when I’m tired.
And of course vacation last week in another time zone, and summer in general has me all jacked up for the last few weeks, and staying up too late too often.
Yet, here is the difference.
Monday, when I woke up at my usual time and still felt tired and groggy, I knew why.
I know exactly what I need to do to get back on track with my sleep so I can function better during my waking hours.
I have no doubt that tonight when I hit the hay at a reasonable hour I can fall asleep, and stay asleep.
I know that three days of good sleep habits will lead to more energy and an ability to handle the ups and downs of life with just a bit more grit and grace than when I’m tired.
I want to challenge you to try the two homework assignments from Joe.
Just for a week (I have to do it for an entire month) really pay attention to your body and the cues it gives you. When it says “I’m tired” give in and go to bed even if it’s at 8:15. And one night a week, go to bed with no tech, no reading, nothing but quiet and calming self-pampering activities.