When my first child was 4 months old, I woke up for the fifth time one night and had a breakdown. That first-time mom adrenaline had worn off and exhaustion set in. I was so tired, I literally could not move. I had flashbacks of my university days...you know, those moments when you thought you could pull an all-nighter and write papers, study for exams or hang out with friends. I felt so stupid for intentionally skipping out on so much sleep.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my broken sleep was seriously contributing to my postpartum anxiety. Every night I had dreams that I would wake up, nurse my baby, burp and change her and then rock her to sleep. As I gently laid her down in my dreams she would cry out in real life! It felt like I was up all night long; a never ending cycle where my dreams and reality blurred into one another, so much that I couldn’t tell the difference.
I was conflicted. Part of me felt helpless and part of me felt motivated to change my situation. I never cared to listen to the advice that holding my baby, nursing or rocking her to sleep was spoiling her, because you cannot spoil an infant! Though, when my mental and physical health started to take a nose dive I was driven to change everything that wasn’t working for me.
For months, I researched best practices and ways to address the current situation I was in. I created a plan, a schedule and a “what to do if…” list. Within three days of changing our routine around sleep and the rhythm of our day, my daughter slept soundly and let me sleep soundly for the first time since she was born.
Within one week of getting fairly consistent sleep I noticed several changes.
I felt less anxious. It wasn’t 100 % better but probably 70%.
My body stopped aching.
My skin started to glow again.
I had energy to move my body more consistently
My zest for life came back.
As a first-time mom, I thought that this was all normal and part of the game. But when my second came along, I implemented a lot of the things I had learned while researching about infant sleep. I didn’t run into the same issues, sure there were some sleepless nights here and there but they were the exception not the norm. Infant sleep became my passion, so much so that I studied it and became a holistic sleep educator.
For five years I worked with families educating them on normal infant sleep patterns. This was vital in helping parents adjust their perception on what their child’s sleep should look like. I helped them incorporate their child’s sleep needs into the family’s daily rhythm because a happy well rested baby means a happy well rested family. I looked at the root causes for sleep disturbances like nutrition, environment, and emotional well-being.
It brought me so much joy to bring sleep back into the lives of so many families because I could completely relate to the struggle. And then as my third neared two years old, my passion for infant sleep started to fade and I started to be more interested in adult sleep.
All three of my children were finally sleeping consistently through the night. No more bathroom breaks, no more nursing, no more early rising. Finally, I could sleep without wondering when and if I was going to be woken up. That is when MY sleep struggles began!
I found it hard to fall asleep.
I was waking up in a puddle of sweat.
I found it really hard to resettle to sleep after waking.
I was waking up feeling exhausted even though I was “in bed” for 7-8 hours a night.
I was having really restless sleep.
After much research, trial and error, these are the things that helped improve my sleep:
Daily Sunlight Exposure in the Morning
Essentially, we want to align our circadian rhythm to the natural day and night cycle of the earth. Two hormones involved in this process are cortisol and melatonin. Think of cortisol as our energy hormone and melatonin as our sleep hormone. To feel our best, cortisol needs to peak in morning and start to come down as the day progresses and melatonin needs to begin to rise as cortisol falls and peak closer to bedtime.
An underrated way to help regulate our circadian rhythm is by getting sun exposure in the morning. Ideally, it should be within an hour of rising on eyes that are not covered and for at least fifteen minutes. Consider bundling up and taking a quick stroll in the morning, or even standing outside and facing the sun while drinking your morning beverage of choice.
I get that it’s much harder to do in the winter because the sun doesn’t rise as early and it can be cold. But the fresh air and movement will also help clear your mind, get your heart rate up and make you feel better.
I have recently fallen in love with herbs and have such a profound respect for their ability to aid in so many things. I am currently obsessed with herbs that help with sleep. What I love the most is that when combined, herbs have a synergistic relationship with one another and they have several herbal actions so they can help with sleep but also help in several other body systems as well.
These are my top 3 herbs for sleep:
Lemon balm is a gentle nervine relaxant meaning it is great for acute periods of stress or tension. If its name didn’t give it away, lemon balm has a nice lemony flavour and it is safe for children. As a mom, this is one of my favourite herbs because not only does it help with sleep and calms the nervous system but it is also a diaphoretic herb. Essentially what this means, is that it helps support the natural fever cycle so that the body can naturally fight off whatever it is dealing with. Keep this one in your natural first aid kit.
Milky oat, a nervine tonic can help to induce feelings of relaxation as well as rebuild the nervous system. It can really help sooth a frayed nervous system. I don’t know about you but after becoming a mom my nervous system took a major hit and I could definitely use some nervous system love. This herb can also help sooth symptoms of heat that can manifest in the body as inflammation, anger and irritability. Not only is this herb great for the nervous system but it is also considered a mucilaginous herb. Think of that jelly consistency when you make a chia pudding or a flax egg. This can be very beneficial for soothing an inflamed digestive system.
Ok, so…before you go googling this “herb” let me be clear. I couldn’t decide on just three herbs so I decided to pick a herbal tincture that has several herbs already in it that are all supportive of sleep. ValeriCalm is by a Canadian company called St. Francis Herb Farm. They are local, certified organic and a small family business that I absolutely adore.
This blend has six herbs that all work synergistically together to help support sleep by calming the mind, nervous system and some of the herbs have sedative properties to help prevent middle of the night waking. This herbal blend includes valerian, passionflower, hops, chamomile, California poppy, and motherwort. It can be found in tincture or pill form.
My personal experience with this blend is to make sure to take it eight hours before rising to ensure all the sedative properties have worn off and grogginess isn’t experienced the next morning. If you plan on being awake for 6:00 a.m. make sure that you take it no later than 10:00 p.m. If taken in smaller doses throughout the day, it is meant to help with nervousness. I have not personally used it in this manner. If you try it, let me know how you like it.
*Avoid if pregnant and/or breastfeeding and not to be taken with other sedative medications.
**For about 10% of people, sedative herbs have the opposite effect on them and can cause them to stay awake. Always listen to your body
This mineral plays a central role in over 600 enzymatic reactions in the body. Due to conventional farming and depleted soil our food is not as rich in this essential mineral and almost everyone is deficient in it. It is my all-star favourite supplement to take. For now, I will focus on magnesium’s ability to support sleep. Magnesium helps slow down brain activity allowing you to relax and chill out. It helps reduce cortisol levels by down regulating the stress response which essentially will help you sleep. If you are like me and find yourself unable to fall asleep due to anxiety, pay attention :)! Magnesium has the ability to restrict the release of stress hormones and filters them out from entering the brain. I really noticed a difference in my anxiety after incorporating magnesium into my supplement regimen.
Have you ever wondered why or how certain essential oils are so calming and sleep supportive? When oils are diffused or even simply inhaled from the palms, the scent traves to the olfactory receptors in the mucosa of the nasal cavity which then relay sensory data to the brain. The essential oils that have calming and relaxing properties will send calming and relaxing messages to the brain, while essential oils that have uplifting and stimulating effects will send energising messages.
Diffusing a blend of lavender, bergamot and cedarwood after the littles are in bed really helps me transition to a more relaxed state and helps me fall asleep easily. I also have a rollerball of an essential oil blend called Serenity by DoTerra that I like to roll on my wrists right before I sleep.
Nightly Wind Down Routine & Consistent Bedtime
From my years as an infant and child sleep educator, I learned that most parents probably need a bedtime routine more than their children. And just like children, some adults need a quick ten-minute routine while others need a longer and more elaborate one. Figuring out what you need may take some trial and error, and TIME. Don’t be so quick to decide if something isn’t working. Give it at least a week before calling it quits. The most important thing is consistency. Yes, even on the weekends. As I mentioned before, our internal body clock (circadian rhythm) dictates when we have bursts of energy and periods of sleepiness. Ideally, we want cortisol to be at its highest in the morning when we wake and as it comes down, we want melatonin to start to rise and peak at bedtime so we can easily and effortlessly fall asleep at bedtime. A consistent bedtime and wakeup time will really assist in this natural rhythm. For adults, a bedtime of 10:00-11:00 p.m. is supportive of this natural rhythm. It will ensure getting the necessary 7-8 hours of sleep a night depending on wakeup time.
Getting restorative sleep is also supportive of:
🡪 mental health
🡪 immune function
A consistent bedtime will help in naturally rising. Waking up naturally feels so much better than being jolted awake by an alarm clock…or your children. As a parent, I have learned to really love the early morning. The peace, quiet and calm has become my most favourite time of the day. A time when I can fill my cup before I need to be everything to everyone else.
If you’re struggling with sleep hopefully one or a few of these tips work for you! I love hearing from you and I am always available to chat if you need extra support.