10 Baby Steps to Better Sleep for the Entire Family


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When it comes to sleep, modern moms face a daunting task. We know our loved ones need their slumber. We're bombarded with studies trumpeting the importance of healthy rest. According to Dr. Khaleel Ahmed, medical director of Triangle-based Parkway SleepHealth Centers, sleep plays an integral role in safety, learning, mood, cardiovascular health, memory, metabolism, weight and immune function.

But juggling the widely different sleep needs of each member of our brood is easier said than done. From the teen who texts into the wee hours, to the tot who demands 20 bedtime stories, to the spouse who tosses and turns, everyone in the family has a different excuse for joining in the familiar chorus of "I'm tired!" and "Just five more minutes!"

Complicating the issue is our own lack of shut-eye. According to the National Sleep Foundation, up to three quarters of moms struggle with bouts of insomnia. What's a sleep-starved mom to do?

If an extreme sleep makeover (7 p.m. bedtime for everyone!) is out of reach, consider these 10 baby steps toward better sleep for everyone in the family. Try just one, pick several or give them all a whirl to keep your bunch at their well-rested best.

1. Turn spare minutes into sleep
Stop worrying about your looming "sleep debt"— countless hours of lost sleep that you know you'll never recover. Instead, aim for just a few more minutes of sleep per day. Tucking everyone (including yourself) into bed 30 minutes earlier than normal is realistic, and kids probably won't balk too much. But this small step adds 3½ extra hours of slumber per week.

2. Set your clock with the sun
Preparing for an easy bedtime begins first thing in the morning, when bright a.m. rays help set the body's internal clock to make it easier to fall asleep at night. Once everyone is awake, throw open the curtains to let in the daylight and serve breakfast in the sunniest spot in the house.

3. Ditch the nightlights
Experts say the best bedroom is a dark bedroom. "The amount of light in the bedroom can have an impact on the natural melatonin circadian rhythms of the brain and impact sleep patterns at night," Ahmed says.

That means bright alarm clocks, televisions and, yes, even nightlights should be turned off or kept out of the bedroom altogether. When a nightlight is unavoidable (in the case of genuine nighttime fears, for example) always choose the dimmest nightlight possible and make sure it doesn't shine directly on your child's face.

4. Make some noise
Turn bedrooms into relaxation zones with white noise. According to Dr. Harvey Karp, creator of the best-selling Happiest Baby On the Block books and DVDs, white noise creates an auditory relaxation cue that works for everyone, from birth through adulthood. High-quality white noise can also help drown out household sounds to help light sleepers rest easier.

5. Unplug
Watching stimulating television shows and using electronic devices at night keeps the family awake and alert when they should be winding down for sleep, says Lisa Feierstein, a registered nurse and co-founder of Active Healthcare, which operates sleep apnea diagnosis and treatment centers in the Triangle. To encourage healthy sleep patterns, Feierstein advises parents to set and enforce media hours and to keep the last hour before bedtime free from the glare of a television, computer or gaming device.

6. Cut the caffeine
Moms love their java. The National Sleep Foundation reports that 65 percent of women rely on caffeine to make it through the day. But overly caffeinated days can make for sleepless nights.

"Caffeine intake is one of the first things I hone in on when someone is struggling with insomnia," says Dr. Mark Splaingard, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital. For better sleep, he recommends that adults limit caffeine to 200 milligrams per day (around 12 ounces of regular drip coffee) before 3 p.m., and that children younger than 12 drink no caffeine.

7. Get a move on
Exercise helps us fall asleep faster and promotes deep sleep, Feierstein says. Get your family's blood pumping by taking a walk together, tackling yard work or breaking out the Wii.

8. Fill your plate
You're feeding your family anyway; why not serve foods that support healthy rest? Foods rich in tryptophan can help your family feel sleepy. Look for dairy and soy products, meat and poultry, whole grains and eggs. Magnesium-rich fare like black beans, pumpkin seeds, almonds and oat bran help relax the muscles. And the calcium found in foods like milk, yogurt, salmon, oatmeal, tofu and fortified orange juice aids in the production  of melatonin.

9. Nap attack
Kids aren't the only ones who need daytime sleep. Adults can benefit from a well-timed siesta, but snoozing too late or too long can wreck nighttime slumber. Nap if you feel sleepy in the afternoon, and encourage sleepy kids and teens to do the same, but avoid napping later than 3 p.m. to protect nighttime sleep.

10. Open your medicine cabinet
Are pills keeping you up at night? Common drugs like antidepressants, thyroid hormones, beta blockers, diuretics and some decongestants can affect sleep quality. Talk to your doctor if you suspect your pills are harming your sleep.

Minor tweaks to your daily routine can add up to big benefits for your sleep and your health, Splaingard says.  "Getting more sleep improves alertness, driving, creative thinking, and motor tasks. You're going to feel better and perform better," he says. And you can start today, by taking a few small steps in the right direction. 

Malia Jacobson writes frequently about sleep and health topics. As a mom of two, she knows firsthand that life is sweeter when everyone gets enough sleep.

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