3 easy routine switches that will help you sleep better each night

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 58-year-old carer wonders if there’s an easier way to get a restorative night’s sleep.

A little about me:

Age: 58

Occupation: homemaker and full-time carer for my 26-year-old son, who suffers from both physical and mental disabilities

Number of hours sleep you get each night: eight hours, but I wake up frequently

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: eight hours solid

Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems: no

Do you measure your sleep in some way (e.g. using your phone or wearable): no

How much water you drink on average per day: 400ml of water, plus four decaf coffees

How much exercise I do on average per week: 20-30 minutes walking per day

Day 1

Last night saw me head to bed at midnight and read for half an hour, but I stayed up for another 45 minutes or so before finally drifting off. I was hot and uncomfortable, and I had to get up to go to the toilet at 3.40am, 5.15am and 6.40am (although I went back to sleep fairly quickly after each visit).

This morning sees my husband’s radio alarm go off at 7.55am. He listens to one song and the news before getting up at about 8.05am, which wakes me up, too. The noise from outside then keeps me awake, but I try to lie still and rest until my own alarm goes off at 9am.

It’s a normal sort of day for me, which involves looking after our disabled son, who cannot be left alone. He is demanding and determines what happens during the day. Breakfast can only be had once our son is sorted, actually, which tends to be at around 11am. I then take him out twice, as he likes going for walks.

Sleep Diaries: I take my son out for two walks.

When my husband finishes work, I prepare a curry, while he takes over caring for our son. We eat at about 7.30pm, and then they watch football (the Euros have started), allowing me to have a shower and put some washed clothes away in our bedroom.

I eat some fruit in the evening, before putting our son to bed at 10pm. My husband and I then watch quiz programmes like Pointless, and it’s our first chance to sit down and truly relax during the day. We always need some time after our son has gone to bed to relax and therefore we rarely get to bed before midnight – it doesn’t help that he is no longer able to go into a respite facility eight times a month, as the Covid-19 pandemic means we no longer get any care package. 

Tonight, we head to bed at 12.30am and I read, as normal. We take it in turns to make a last drink. We always have a cup of decaf coffee at bedtime. And, yes, this may be a reason why I regularly have to get up during the night, but I have no wish to stop this.

I have not taken paracetamol tonight, which means that the edge has not been taken off of my knees (I am on a waiting list to have my partial knee replacements changed for full knee replacements). So, when the lights are turned off at 1am, I don’t drift off; in fact, the pain means that I have a very bad night, going to the toilet at 2.25am, 3.45am and 5.45am. Thankfully, each time I manage to get back to sleep.

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Day 2

The alarms are off this morning (it’s Saturday), but my husband wakes naturally at 8.30am. This wakes me, too, and I feel tired. Thankfully, our son is quiet which means that we stay in bed. I try to doze while my husband sits up in bed and plays on the tablet. Later, after getting our son ready, I manage to eat some cereal at about 11am.

My husband looks after our son this afternoon, which means that, for the first time in forever, I can go shopping alone. He also cooks dinner (a chicken in a spicy honey sauce and noodles), and we eat this at about 7.30pm. 

Afterwards, we watch TV and I had a can of caffeine-free cola at 9pm. We head to bed at 12.30am, and I have my traditional decaf coffee. The lights are turned off at 1am and I fall asleep quite quickly.

Sleep Diaries: I read and sip on a decaf coffee in bed.

Day 3

I have my best night’s sleep in ages, and don’t wake up until 7.30am. Then, I pop to the loo, go back to sleep and am finally woken by my husband getting up; I look at the clock and am surprised to find out that it’s 9.05am. 

We put on the radio and wait until 9.15am to get up. Our son is awake but sounds happy. We have to be up so that my son and husband can go to church for 11am. I am going to concentrate on housework while they are out.

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We are out for most of the day, watching the England match at a friend’s house and then having a barbecue at about 5pm. I take part in our weekly family quiz at 8pm via Zoom, before putting our son to bed at 10pm. 

I eat fruit and chat with my husband, before heading to bed at 12.15am. The lights are off 15 minutes later, and I fall asleep immediately, but it’s a bad night; I wake before 3.15am to go to the loo, and can’t drift back off as it is oppressively hot. Not certain how much I sleep after this, but I do know that I’m up for the loo again at 7.30am.

Day 4

I’m first woken by my husband’s alarm at 7.55am, and then mine at 9am. I hop out of bed, get our son ready and, again, eat breakfast once he’s done (about 11am).

It is a normal and tiring day of trying to keep our son entertained. We eat as a family at about 7.30pm, tucking into plates of breaded chicken with salad. After that ,we watch TV and try to settle our son down; we get him to bed at 9.45pm. 

As ever, we stay up for a while afterwards so that we can catch up. In fact, my husband and I don’t head up to bed until 12.15am. He’s tired and turns his light off at 12.30am, which means that I read for a shorter period than usual and am forced to gulp my coffee down. I struggle to get to sleep again, mostly as a result of the heat.

Sleep Diaries: I often wake up around 3:30am.

Day 5

I wake up at about 3.30am and head to the toilet, and it takes me an age before I get back to sleep. When I do, it’s one of those sleeps where you aren’t sure if you have fully lost yourself. Then, I wake again at 6.30am and, although I did not get up, I don’t feel that I manage to drift back to sleep afterwards. 

The dustmen arrive at 7.15am, waking my husband up with the noise. He stays in bed until just after 8am and I follow after at 8.30am. Our son goes to a day centre for a few hours on Tuesdays, so I get a bit of time for myself once he is picked up (usually at 10am).

I eat at about 7.30pm, manage to get our son settled early and give him a lovely cuddle while my husband has a bath. Then, I put our son to bed at 10pm and watch TV.

I head to bed at 12.05am and read until 12.35am. Then, it’s time for my normal final decaf coffee before the lights get switched off. Annoyingly, I’m still awake at 3.30am due to the heat, and disturb myself getting up to go to the loo. I fall asleep afterwards and wake at about 6.30am. I lie there until my alarm goes off at 9.00am. Strangely, though, I’m not as tired as I would expect.

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “I really want to help you, as you clearly have a lot on your hands with the intense care needed by your son. Still, though, when you are a carer – and I work with a lot of them – you need to put your oxygen mask on first so that you don’t burn out.

“There are a few easy things you can do to boost the restorative levels of your sleep. First things first, I wish you could make time for a quick, convenient breakfast soon after you get up – even if it’s just a small handful of nuts eg almonds, walnuts or brazil nuts and a banana or a fruit and nut-based energy bar to get your energy going. This will help the body produce melatonin, a hormone needed for a good night of sleep, as well as provide the perfect mix of protein, fat and carbohydrate to kickstart the body’s metabolism and stabilise blood sugar first thing in the morning.”

    Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

    Dr Nerina continues: “Secondly, you need to drink more water throughout the day – around 2 litres, ideally little and often. Dehydration can have a number of adverse effects on the body, such as dizziness, feeling drowsy and having dark-coloured, strong-smelling urine. It can also, though, impair sleep, making you feel sluggish and irritable during the day.

    “To this same end, you need to half the decaffeinated drinks. Ironically, this will not only help you to sleep more deeply, but it could also curb the multiple loo visits. And better hydration could also help the knee pain, too.” 

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    Dr Nerina concludes: “Finally, you need to stop checking the time when you wake up. I promise it’s normal to wake during the night (most people do so eight to 11 times), but registering the time could keep you awake and hyper vigilant for when you might need to go again. And you know how it works, the more you think about it…

    “Oh, and a fan in the room might help provide some much-needed relief from the heat, not to mention some lovely white noise to stop your husband’s morning routine intruding into your day.

    “Good luck!”

    If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at digital.com[email protected] with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

    Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

    Images: Getty/Unsplash/Ben Blennerhassett/Taisiia Shestopal

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