An eye-opening, vital, alarming, passionate, compelling and utterly convincing book that has taught me to love sleeping again.
I used to have a good night’s sleep. It was a long time ago. I’ve always been an early bird and have loved waking up in the morning before everybody else. But I had to have a good night’s shut-eye, which meant 8 hours of sleep. Whenever it came to going out in the evening, I have always been the least popular in our group of friends because I was always the first one who wanted to call it a night, and even if I stayed only two hours past my bedtime, the next day I would feel like I had lost the entire night. And the fatigue would last for at least two days. Sleeping in has never been an option for me, not even on weekends, because whether I went to bed at 11 p.m. or 2 a.m., I would still wake up before 7 a.m. without an alarm clock. I have had my fair share of excesses, sure, occasionally staying up late at night from various reasons, but my 7-8 sleeping hours per night were usually non-negotiable.
Fast forward to motherhood. Sleeping at night became an adventure. And to make things worse, I did not follow the piece of advice I was given most often: “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” I did not, and be it day or night, I would take advantage of the time my son slept to work. My lack of sleep started to accumulate. When my son finally started to have a full night of sleep, the sudden prospect of a few more hours I could use to work every night (I work almost exclusively from home) seemed too good, even glorious to pass on, so my sleep did not improve much. On the contrary, it got worse. Not few were the nights when I would stay up even until 3 a.m. and would then have to wake up at 7 a.m. I could almost not tell the difference between night and day anymore, when the day ended and the night started and vive-versa.
“Cloud Study”, illustration by Irina Georgescu, as part of the 5poems project
To make a long story short, I started to feel my sleep deprivation and everybody else around me did, too. I was often nervous, snappy, irritable, not-fun anymore, tired all the time. My family stepped in. “You should get more sleep. Get some time off.” “I know, I will try”. Neither of us believed what I was saying. Then, one day, my brother tells me about this book (I always take his advice on books), Why We Sleep. “Everyone should read this book,” he says and he lets his words sink in before telling me a couple of things he’s read in it, among which why the entire educational systems in the whole world should be changed so that children don’t have to wake up very early (with special emphasis on teenagers – believe me, if you are the parent of a teenager, you want to read the book now). That’s all I needed to hear to decide to buy it. Me, who has always been scornful about people sleeping in and had never fully comprehended that people can be night owls just as well as they can be early birds, that they have genetically determined preference for mornings or evenings, and that waking up late has nothing to do with laziness.
As soon as I started reading the book, written by Matthew Walker, neuroscientist and professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, I literally got scared. I started to realise what the consequences of my hectic program and chronic sleep deprivation (it’s important to realise the difference between sleep deprivation and insomnia) could be. What those consequences already were. That my sleep loss was inhumane (bare in mind that this had been going on for more than three years). I knew I had to change my lifestyle. As simple and as crucial as that. It’s the second time a book has had this lifestyle changing effect on me. The first one was a nutritional book, in high school, and I wrote about that experience here.
So after starting to read Why We Sleep, I started to make changes in my daily routine and now, about a month later, I am already starting to feel the difference. Some things you may already know, some things are common sense; I had already known many of those things myself, but still didn’t apply them. But believe me, if you did know what irreversible impact the deprivation of sleep and insomnia have on your physical and mental health, you would want to act now. And that your body and brain will not be able to fully recuperate any loss of sleep, that is something you should know, too. And that if you are about to undergo a medical procedure, you would better ask your doctor how many hours he slept the previous night. Yes, not sleeping enough is health- and life-threatening (on so many levels). So I will not tell you much else about the book, because, you do have to read it yourselves, but I will say what changes I myself have made so far based on Matthew Walker’s advice.
Illustration by Irina Georgescu
No screen time within two hours of bedtime. No work on laptop or iPad. I’m not into social media, which means I didn’t have anything to cut off from in that department, but writing email drafts (I say drafts, because I believe it’s unprofessional to send emails at any time of day or night, and, no, it does not prove that you are productive), or working on a new project could often turn into long hours into the night. So I just stopped working at night and became more organized during the day. I was surprised to find out how doable that was. And here comes the difficult part: I had to say no watching movies before bedtime (I say movies because I don’t watch tv). Guys, if you’ve been visiting this site for a while, you know that I would bindge-watch every night if I could (which in fact my husband and I have done many times over the years, and, truth be told, few things can beat that) and the fact that I have even started to reconsider watching a movie in the evening should give you an idea about the impact this book has had on me.
I don’t drink coffee after 2 p.m. anymore. That second cup of coffee was one of my daily biggest pleasures, but I stopped from day one after reading about it in the book.
Relax before bed. I am an over-achiever who is trying to over-schedule every day of the week. I am learning to cut me some slack and find ways to unwind. Easier said than done. But I am trying to transform reading into my bedtime ritual again. Even more than watching a film, reading a book is the thing that truly relaxes me, because, to be honest, my mind sometimes wanders off to to-do lists and stressful matters even while watching a film. And we always listen to music with our son before his bedtime.
We dim out the lights in our house with at least one hour and a half before bedtime. And make sure you don’t have white lights in your home.
Take a hot bath before bed. I am a shower person (Are you kidding me? Just think of the time you save showering instead of taking a bath! Yes, I am that stressed about my time management.), but whenever I take a bath before bed, it helps a lot.
Dark bedroom, cool bedroom, comfortable bedroom, gadget-free bedroom.I’ve never been able to sleep (even before having sleep problems) in total darkness. I have now started to close the blinds completely. I sometimes cheat and leave them a little open, but I have realised that I do sleep better when it’s darker. Another important aspect is room temperature. Let me put it this way. You sleep better when it’s a little cold than when it’s too hot in the room. Comfort: I can not sleep if I do not have a good, firm mattress, a comfortable pillow, cotton sheets. And last, we’ve never allowed phones or iPads in the bedroom, but we gave in to a tv to use only on those nights when we wanted to indulge ourselves and watch Seinfeld. Yes, really, we still watch Seinfeld, and, yes, really, that’s all we’ve ever watched in the bedroom from time to time. So Seinfeld had to go, too. Radical choices (for a movie buff)? Definitely. Necessary? Absolutely.
Don’t lie in bed awake. If I can’t sleep, I go to another room and read a book (I used to go to another room when I couldn’t sleep before, too, but I would turn on my iPad and work).
The biggest struggle of all (and the most important rule, according to Matthew Walker) remains going to sleep at the same hour and waking up at the same hour, even on weekends. I am slowly getting there.
I let my son sleep in if he has had an unrestful sleep during the night or had trouble going to sleep at the right hour (he usually wakes up by himself early, as any child going to bed at the right hour, with a healthy sleep, should) and skip kindergarten. I know this is not an option for many or some parents, but my schedule affords me to do that and so I do it, no remorses whatsoever.
And here are a few more tips for healthy sleep, which were already part of my daily routine and lifestyle, and which Matthew Walker advices readers to follow.
Eat dinner early. Do not exercise in the evening. Have the right sunlight exposure (get outside in natural sunlight for at least thirty minutes each day). No alcohol in the evening. No smoking. Avoid sleeping pills (and seek the help of a sleep specialist instead).
I also highly recommend listening to this Fresh Air podcast, where Terry Gross interviews the author.