Mastering Sleep

Given that my sleep patterns have been grossly disturbed over the last few weeks I have decided to share some of the things I’ve learned about how to master your sleep. Why have my sleep patterns been disrupted I hear you ask? Children.

Specifically, one child.

Now before I hear cries denouncing my suffering as insignificant compared with that of the primary care giver – the mother in this case – let me say this; I hear you. I’m a Dad, and what do I know about being tired and up through the night, then having to operate a non-stop shift with tooth picks holding my eyelids up? If you’re a Dad, then this is probably a familiar argument to you.

Before we get stuck into my top tips for mastering your sleep, here’s my take on that position – there are a few differences between men and women (whether you like to admit it or not; there are). Firstly, the mother spends roughly 9 months becoming physiologically and mentally prepared for the birth of the child, and every natural process that follows – including being up through the night with a baby. Our physiologies are different (yes, men actually get hit harder by colds and flu than women – why? Oestrogen), and women are literally designed for childcare. That might be a controversial statement, however I challenge anyone to argue it given that ladies are equipment with a womb and men are not. Whether you want to choose to get offended by this fact and dive into a raging debate or not, you cannot argue with this plain and simple fact.

I’m not saying women are better at these skills than men (well, apart from the whole pregnancy and child birth thing…) but I am saying that due to the significant period of pregnancy and all the psychological and physiological changes that go with it, women are way more prepared for what follows than us blokes. It’s like running a marathon – if you train for it, you’ll do a lot better than someone just turns up and hopes for the best, and probably by a long shot. Think of pregnancy as parental training at it’s deepest level, and on this front women definitely have the upper hand.

I should also say here that I have MASSIVE amounts of respect for anyone who goes through child birth – I think the female body is literally amazing, and the feats they achieve in the process of growing, carrying and delivering a child are nothing short of miraculous in mature. The change, the pain, the sacrifices… I’m just blown away with awe at the things most women do for their children – even from the moment of conception.

I remember everything my partner went through during both of the two pregnancies we have so far shared together, and I cannot tell you how amazing she is. It’s inspiring.

Now, being up in the night and having to deal with toddlers that won’t go to bed, get back up repeatedly accompanied by screams and wails, and then rise for the day before the birds, is all completely new to me. I do not have the experience in dealing with such challenges that my partner has, and so I generally defer to her superior knowledge. I am an extremely lucky man – and I know it. I can’t imagine going on the journey of having children without someone who is as knowledgable and conscientious as she is.

That said, and with the background context out of the way, let’s get stuck into mastering sleep!

We are told from a very early age that we must get enough sleep, indirectly implying that quantity (or number of hours actually spent asleep) is the most important metric to measure. But is this really the case? Can we skip sleep during the week and then sleep for 14 hours at the weekend to ‘catch up’? Well, consider it in terms of charging your smart phone – if it’s fully charged in 1 hour but you leave it on for another 2 hours is it even more charged? No! It can’t find extra power storage space and neither can you – this is why trying to catch up on missed sleep at the weekends just isn’t a good idea.

The problem with this approach is that it’s overly simplistic, and isn’t going to serve you – yes, you need to get enough sleep, but you also need to make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep.

So, what is quality sleep?

Simply put, quality sleep is when you are able to get a straight run of undisturbed sleep that allows you to move unhindered through the various sleep cycles. Add in young children and babies and you can see how this can be extremely challenging for new mothers; in fact, it verges on impossible!

Generally speaking, a full sleep cycle is around 1.5 to 2 hours in duration and knowing this is one of the primary keys to mastering your sleep. No doubt most of you will have heard of the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, and this phase comes in right at the end of each sleep cycle.

Let’s look a bit more deeply at a typical sleep cycle and timings for each phase:

  • NREM 1: This is the first phase of sleep where you’re still awake and slowly drifting off, and generally lasts around 10 minutes
  • NREM 2: This is your light sleep phase and generally accounts for roughly 45% of a single complete cycle
  • NREM 3: This is the deep sleep phase of the cycle and generally starts 35-45 minutes after falling asleep
  • NREM 4: This is the REM phase of the sleep cycle, and also where you get the most restorative sleep. This phase usually starts around 90 minutes after you fall asleep and is known as the dream phase of sleep – if you’re not dreaming or notice a decline in the frequency of dreams, then it’s possible that for some reason you’re not ever reaching this all important phase of sleep

Studies have shown that people who get the right amount of high quality sleep (moving unhindered through each full cycle) are more likely to live a longer and more healthy life and experience greater levels of wellbeing than those who don’t. So sleep is pretty important, and not just how much you get but how much of the right kind of sleep you get.

This could provide some explanation for the differences in how much sleep a given person needs in order to wake feeling refreshed – how easily fo they run through their cycles, and how quickly do they enter REM sleep? Those of us who move through the cycles more quickly and therefore enter REM sleep sooner, should in theory be better at working with less sleep in terms of overall duration.

So, are there any hacks for helping us to get into that REM phase more quickly and more smoothly as we move through each cycle? Well, there are definitely some tactics you can use to improve your chances for high quality sleep and preparation is key.

Here’s a few things to try if you want to super charge your sleep:

  1. Electronic Devices – switch them off a few hours before bed! Electronic devices like your smart phone, computer and television all radiate blue light which I like to call ‘junk light’. It’s artificial and it throws your whole body clock out of synch. The best way to avoid it is to just switch everything off at least an hour before bed, however I can appreciate that this won’t be very appealing to most people! My favourite tactic is to put smart phones and laptops into ‘night mode’ where it automatically removes all the blue light from the screens to help your mind and body prepare for sleep – most devices will have an option for this, but there are loads of apps that will allow you to achieve the same thing also; I highly recommend you check it out
  2. Have a hot bath before bed – the heat from the bath tends to relax the mind and body, and helps to wind you down in preparation for slumber… it’s also not recommended to use your smart phone or laptop in the bath, so grab a good book and benefit from compounding the two techniques! Just be careful not to jump straight back into a blue light environment as soon as you’re done
  3. Be mindful of what you eat and drink before bed – protein can be good to have just before bed to help you sleep, and my favourite is something like a level spoon of nut butter (almond butter or cashew butter rather than peanut butter). You can also drink warm milk, chamomile tea which has natural soothing properties, or snack on cheese and crackers as this combines carbs with calcium or the amino acid L-tryptophan which is used by your body to produce a B-Vitamin called Niacin which plays a key role in the production of serotonin – a key neurotransmitter associated with sleep and melatonin levels. Combining this with carbohydrates when consumed is what allows this compound to actually reach the brain and not get smothered by all the other amino acids fighting for uptake by the body – the carbs cause a release of insulin which in turn removes all the amino acids from the blood… apart form L-tryptophan
  4. Some other obvious hacks are sleeping in a cool room, as you will wake if aroused by the discomfort associated with being overheated, keeping the sleeping environment quiet and keeping it dark (the body is naturally conditioned to wake when it’s light – so sleeping in the dark helps to stop this mechanism being triggered before you’re ready). Finally, lay off the caffeine (for obvious reasons) and ditch the alcohol – the latter may make you drowsy, but it won’t help you get to the REM phase of sleep any faster, and in my experience tends to decrease the quality of sleep
  5. Stick to the same sleep schedule EVERY day. Again, attempting to catch up on sleep at the weekends or when it’s convenient just isn’t going to work, so try to keep to the same sleep/wake times every single day of the week… even after a heavy Friday night session! Habits are powerful creatures, and getting into the habit of going to bed and rising at roughly the same times each and every day will be sure to serve you well
  6. Lastly, if you’re feeling really adventurous (or you’re completely at your wits end) you can try experimenting with alternative sleeping patterns. Some you could try are Uberman (2 hours sleep per day, spread over 6-8 naps of roughly 20 minutes in duration), Dymaxion (similar to Uberman in that you get 2 hours of sleep a day but spread over 4 naps of roughly 30 minutes each), Everyman (this is one 3.5 hour period of sleep, followed by 3 no. 20 minute naps throughout the day), or Biphasic – which is basically 5-6 hours sleep at night, and a shorter nap in the middle of the day

Plenty to try out there! Which am I closest to? Well, my sleep pattern mostly resembles the Biphasic method, only I’m skipping the nap in the middle of the day… as every parent knows, two children very rarely sleep at the same time, so that nap can be difficult to squeeze in around a hectic life! I’m sure it could be introduced relatively easily though, so maybe that’s something I’ll consider moving forward – but generally speaking so long as I get 4 full and uninterrupted sleep cycles, I’m cooking on gas!

The main point I’d like you to take away from this is the structure of a typical sleep cycle – I always plan my sleep/wake times according to 1.5 hour cycles, and although I rarely dream, this tends to serve me well (I rarely remember my dreams when I sleep longer anyway, and I definitely wake up feeling refreshed after 6 hours sleep). Think about what time you need to get up, and then work back from that in 1.5 hour increments – so, for me, if I’m up at 5am then I know I need to be in bed and starting to fall asleep by 11pm in order to get my 4 full cycles.

Have a play around and see what works for you.

I hope you’ve found that informative, interesting and useful – here’s to a great night’s sleep!

“Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do”

– Bruce Lee

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