Empty Nest? Learn How to Sleep Again!
When my kids were in high school, they were convinced that I was psychic. When they missed curfew or, in the case of my challenging older son, met their curfew but pretended to go back to sleep only to sneak out the bedroom window, I always knew. While doling out grapefruit halves and granola at breakfast the next morning before church, I would calmly announce the crime and the punishment, slipping it calmly into the breakfast chit chat: “Please pass the milk, Matthew. Oh, by the way, David, your father and I have decided to ground you for two weeks for leaving at 12:05 and staying out until 4:47 AM. You must be very tired, honey.”
I wasn’t psychic, though. I’m just a very light sleeper. As useful as my sleep difficulties were for managing a house full of teenagers, it got pretty old once they left the nest. A creak from the floorboards, a buzzing refrigerator three rooms away, a fly trapped and buzzing in our bedroom and I’d be up all night. Now that my kids are grown and gone and I no longer have to play psychic sheriff, I like to fall asleep when I go to bed. I like to stay asleep all night and wake up refreshed.
If your young adult is away in treatment or has begun her independent life, you have an empty–or partially empty–nest. You may, however, still have sleep disruption from many years of nighttime vigilance. If so, now’s the time to reclaim your right to a good night’s sleep! You’re a better parent (and employee, and friend, and everything else) when you’re taking good care of yourself. Since sleep is at the core of self care, now’s a great time to practice good sleep habits. I joke that learning to fall asleep and stay asleep has saved me thousands of dollars in carpentry, refrigerator repair, fly traps…oh and plastic surgery. So if you’re a light sleeper, an insomniac, or curfew cop on sabbatical, here are some things I’ve learned in my years as a recovering parent and practicing psychotherapist that will help you sleep through the night.
TIP 1: If you’re not blessed with outdoor work, be sure your office and home are well-illuminated, preferably with a combination of daylight (big windows) and 4100K or higher light bulbs—i.e. bulbs that include a lot of blue light. Natural and simulated daylight tells your body the difference between day and night and gives it a rhythm for producing melatonin at the right time.
TIP 2: Start dimming your lights an hour or so before you plan to hit the pillow. Then make sure your room is black as, well, night. Light blocking window treatments, can be a huge help. So can either eliminating night lights or, if you need them, replacing yellow or blue spectrum lights with red ones, which will light your way to the bathroom without disrupting your sleep as much. TV in the bedroom can introduce a level of illumination to your sleep environment that can wreak havoc on sleep patterns by suppressing melatonin production–so watch the boob tube somewhere else!
TIP 3: If you’re a sound sleeper or live in a temperate place like California (a two season spot), one set of sheets can take you through all twelve months. But if you’re a light sleeper and live in a place with all four seasons, you might want to consider a seasonal approach to your bed linens. I have cool, clean Egyptian cotton to keep my skin dry and cool in the summer, but when the pumpkins come out, I switch to plush flannel and a feather bed to cradle my body in plush warmth.
TIP 4: Alcoholic beverages may help you fall asleep but the sugar and alcohol can lead to poor-quality sleep and to waking up prematurely. If you do drink alcohol, moving toward moderation (or abstinence) may be your ticket to better sleep. Beer (rather than hard alcohol)—especially dark beer like Guinness—can trigger the production of melatonin. It’s not clear whether or not it’s enough melatonin to help you sleep, but at melatonin is one of the best antioxidants out there, so even if you don’t have a good night’s sleep, you’ll at least be fighting the wrinkles can come from sleep deprivation! So abstinence or moderation while moving away from sugary or harder drinks can help improve the quality of your sleep. Note, however, that if you drink heavily the initial transition to moderation may itself disrupt your sleep temporarily. You may want to consult your physician or therapist if you feel this transition might be challenging for you.
TIP 5: Your body and your brain like routines. For a better night’s sleep, try to maintain a consistent bedtime, waking time, work schedule, and meal schedule. Even when one part of that routine is disrupted, keep the other parts of your routine consistent; for instance, avoid sleeping in when you get to bed late. One sleepy day is a small price to pay for more consistent sleep over the long haul.