Meghan Mattingly is up again. On most nights, one or both of her boys wakes up several times. “They both were out of cribs really, really early,” she says. And it keeps getting worse, “because they started just jumping out.”
Mattingly has to deal with her own sleep issues, too. She frequently suffers from fragmented sleep, waking up around 2 or 3 in the morning, her mind immediately turning to work. “Then I’m awake for two to three hours,” she says, “just tossing and turning.”
The struggle to get more sleep is one to which most moms can relate. Hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy and after giving birth — in addition to menstruation and menopause — can all trigger poor sleep.
“Between the ages of 25 to 69, women disproportionately experience shorter sleep duration and greater sleep fragmentation,” says Dr. Christine Spadola, a sleep researcher at Florida Atlantic University. In fact, a November 2020 review of 13 insomnia studies published in Frontiers in Psychology found a significantly greater prevalence of insomnia in women than in men.
Good sleep can feel frustratingly elusive for mothers, but moms can find ways to boost both the amount and quality of their slumber.
Since every little bit helps, if you can implement any of these sleep tips, you may give yourself the best Mother’s Day gift of all: the gift of a good night’s rest.
Change Your Sleep Mindset
The biggest challenge of all may be shifting your mindset. For many moms, staying up late feels like an act of self-preservation.
“Moms report that their day is not their own,” says Spadola, so they stay up late to enjoy the solitude. Alternatively, they may believe they’re more productive at night when their homes are quiet. Yet the research supports the opposite, according to Spadola. “When we sleep better, we’re more efficient.”
Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule
Moms, like all adults, need at least seven hours of sleep a night for optimal health, says Dr. Shalini Paruthi, a sleep specialist and member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, which reports that getting much less sleep on a regular basis is associated with many “adverse health outcomes,” including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, depression and an overall increased risk of death. Parents often find poor sleep impedes their caregiving abilities, says Paruthi. “When I’m sleep deprived, it’s really hard for me to function as a mom,” her patients tell her.
Fortunately, you can take some steps to get more sleep, although some advice may be easier to follow than others.
“The most important thing you can do is maintaining a regular sleep schedule,” both when you go to bed and when you wake up, according to Spadola. “That’s for our circadian rhythm,” the internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle.
On this point, Paruthi recommends setting an alarm in the evening as a reminder. As for moms who feel like they have to stay up late so they can do chores, Paruthi suggests letting the kids share the burden so that you can get the sleep you need. “Dividing up that work is, I think, really important,” she says.
Stress is one of the biggest roadblocks for moms who want more sleep.
“A lot of times we have sleep fragmentation or insomnia in the middle of the night because we have unresolved stress from the day,” Spadola says.
Paruthi adds, “Moms have a lot of chatter in their brain, like 24/7.”
Both recommend keeping a worry journal as an outlet for that stress. Even just jotting down bullet points can help, but Paruthi notes that one shouldn’t journal too close to bedtime.
Creating a peaceful mood before going to sleep can also help alleviate stress. Moms, like babies, benefit from a regular bedtime routine, says Spadola. That could mean playing relaxing music, doing a bit of light stretching or yoga or breathing in the smell of lavender.
Put Down the Electronic Devices
All of us would sleep better if we turned off our phones.
“Holding a screen close … emits blue light into the eye,” says Spadola. Essentially, “the light is telling us to wake up.”
You can use blue-light filters on phones, as well as blue-light-filtering glasses (Paruthi says inexpensive pairs are just as good as the higher priced options), but Spadola cautions these filters can only do so much. The ideal solution is to turn off the phone altogether.
By the way, blue light isn’t the only problem that comes from using your phone before going to sleep.
Doom-scrolling” — the practice of reading through copious amounts of bad news — can heighten anxiety before bed. Paruthi suggests trying to schedule phone time earlier in the day, whether for reading the news or listening to your favorite podcasts, so that you aren’t tempted at night.
What you do during the day matters, too. Skip naps, but if do you need one, keep it short and early in the day, says Spadola. Getting regular exercise — a huge mood booster on its own — can also do wonders for your sleep, adds Paruthi. Limit alcohol and caffeine, particularly at night, but also later in the day.
Make Your Bedroom a Sleep Sanctuary
Ultimately, think of your room as a “sleep sanctuary,” says Spadola. Keep your bedroom cool, quiet and dark. Research suggests the ideal temperature for sleep is between 65 and 72 degrees, says Paruthi. Blackout shades are extremely effective, but an eye shade works just as well. On the flip side, let light in as soon as you wake up so that you feel awake when you need to be. White-noise machines work well for some patients, too.
Give yourself an opportunity to experiment, says Paruthi. Try getting up early for two weeks to see if it boosts your productivity. “Be dynamic,” she says. Just as your kids’ needs change as they age, yours will, too. As you get older, you may want more sleep or an earlier wake-up time.
Finally, leave your work outside of the bedroom, says Spadola, although that approach can be especially challenging these days with many bedrooms doubling as work stations. If this scenario applies to you, try using a dividing screen to separate your bed from your working area.
Mattingly is constantly working on improving the sleep situation at home, knowing how critical it is for her to take care of herself so she can be at her best to take care of the children. “You know how you should always put on your own oxygen mask first? I think it really rings true.”
Jenny Splitter is a science journalist and a co-founder of SciMoms, an evidence-based blog for parents and caregivers. She lives in the H Street NE neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with her husband, two kids, a cat and a dog.