Sleep feels good. I love the creamy feeling on my skin when I submerge beneath my bed covers. It's a sensual experience, inhaling the smell of my pillow in the dark, and hearing the silence. Experiencing the oblivion, the void, the dreams. Getting better sleep is probably my favorite form of self care.
In his excellent article "Falling for Sleep," Rubin Naiman reminds us of the Greek Nyx, Goddess of Night, and her son Hypnos, God of Sleep. Together they would fly through the sky, Nyx magically turning daylight into darkness, and Hypnos scattering poppy flowers over the land and putting everybody out. I love thinking of sleep and night as entities to revere, court, and perhaps make offerings to. Let's talk about what herbs are good for sleep, and about some of the rituals we can use to woo Hypnos and his poppy petals.
Sleep can be a triggering topic for parents. There are factors that are out of our control (a.k.a. little people) that keep us from getting enough of it. And if you know how important it is, that knowledge can cause stress that makes the situation worse. So I'm not going to spend time detailing the ways sleep deprivation messes with your life. If you want to hear that sort of thing, I recommend Matthew Walker's book "Why We Sleep," or his interview on Fresh Air for a quick version.
Nobody expects parents of small children to get 8 uninterrupted hours every night, but it isn't all or nothing, it's all or something.* You can help yourself get back to sleep faster, and make the most of the sleep you do get.
If parenthood is keeping you from getting enough rest, be gentle with yourself. Remember that it's not your fault, this too shall pass, and engage in other ways to support yourself, like staying hydrated, getting outside, eating food and enjoying it, having a 5-minute dance party, giving yourself permission to stare into space.
10 Ways To Sleep Well
There will likely be some tips that you're not able or willing to implement. Take what you can, and leave the rest.
1. Avoid Screens Before Bed
The blue light from computers, phones, and TVs messes with our circadian rhythm, tricking our brains into thinking that the sun is still shining. When I'm able, I try to stop looking at screens at least an hour before bedtime, and pick up a book instead. If you're someone who needs to work at night, blue light blocking glasses are helpful.
2. Turn Down The Lights
For the same reason, it can be really nice to switch to dim house lights when the sun goes down. I like to turn off overhead bulbs and rock the holiday string lights, it's beautiful and it makes me happy. I have some friends who take the extra step and go by candlelight at sundown, which is magical.
3. Don't do anything in your bed but sleep (and make love)
If you can, avoid reading, working, eating, etc. in bed. That way, when you climb in, it sends the signal to your brain that it's sleepy time (or business time). This tip is so important that sleep scientist Matthew Walker actually recommends getting out of bed when you're stuck awake in the middle of the night. He says that if you go do something else (like read a book) until you're tired again, it will help preserve your brain's associations with bed.
4. Keep it Dark
Little lights on alarm clocks, smoke detectors, computers, and street lights can all keep us up. Throw a blanket over it, put a little round black sticker on the smoke detector, use thick curtains.
5. Keep it Quiet
All the nighttime sounds can cause us to wake up over and over. Control what you can, use earplugs (plus a loud baby monitor) for what you can't.
6. Keep it Cold
Human bodies need to drop their temperature in order to fall asleep, and tend to do best at around 65°F.
7. Get physically tired, but not too late
Getting exercise during the day is a great way to promote sleep at night, but if it's too close to bedtime, all the excitement can keep us up. I know parents struggle to get their workouts in. Daytime dance parties with the kiddos are a great way to tire yourself out.
8. Have a ritual
Whatever you like to do before bed, do it consistently. Brushing your teeth, reading a book in your favorite chair, preparing and drinking a cup of chamomile tea. When you do the same thing every night, it sends that message to your brain that it's time to wind down. Matthew Walker also strongly suggests going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.
Meditating at any time of day trains our brains to be able to put aside the endless thoughts and get present. It's an incredibly useful headspace to drop into when you're lying there making lists and re-writing what you might have said.
10. Use caffeine and alcohol mindfully
Caffeine insidiously messes with the hormone adenosine that builds up throughout the day and makes us sleepy at night. You may be thinking "but I only have one cup of coffee in the morning!" I've seen clients who switched their one morning coffee to decaf and slept much better afterward.
Alcohol may knock us out of consciousness but it actually keeps us from entering the regular sleep cycles of natural, restful sleep. It also causes us to wake up many times for short periods that we may not even remember, so we're actually sleeping worse than we think we are.
Both caffeine and alcohol are precious medicines to many parents. No shame to anyone who uses them, I'm just sharing facts so you can be armed with information when you make decisions.
Herbs for Sleep
All of these plants fall into the category of "relaxing nervines," meaning they relax the nervous system. Every person is different, and each nervine effects each person differently. For that reason, I like to line up a couple of options with clients, and have them taste a few drops of each tincture. If there's a plant that makes the tension behind their eyes relax, and they're suddenly breathing a little deeper, that's a good one for them. Here I will talk about a few of my favorites, and leave you with a list of herb ideas for further exploration.
California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica
It's no accident that Poppies are Hypnos's flower of choice. A strong sedative herb, California poppy is a great before-bed ritual. I like to keep a tincture at my bedside, and take a dose if I wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back to sleep. It can be taken without fear of a "hangover" in the morning. The entire fresh plant is used to make a tincture or a glycerite, and it's helpful for fussy children too.
Chamomile, Matricaria recutita
Ah, the oft underestimated Chamomile. What many think of as a soft, cliché, childs-play kind of herbal tea is also a fierce and strong plant. Chamomile is relaxing, a digestive aid, and soothing to headaches, making it the perfect before-bed ritual. This one is also safe for small children, and I talk about many of its uses and ways to prepare it in my free PDF handbook My 3 Favorite Herbs for Kids.
Kava Kava, Piper methysticum
Kava Kava is a traditional beverage of the Pacific Islands, where it's often ritually prepared with coconut milk and imbibed celebratorily. Here in the states you can find it in both tea and tincture form. It's a strong sedative herb that relaxes the muscles and the mind. There are some people for whom it can be too much, so test it out to see if it's right for you. I personally don't do well with regular doses, but find a few drops of the tincture to be instantly relaxing and very useful when I'm diving into bed.
Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera
I talked about Ashwagandha and its stress-adapting superpowers here. Its species name, somnifera, means sleep-inducing. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine powder the root and stir it into warm milk before bed. Use nut milk if you prefer. Add a little cinnamon and cardamom anyone? Unlike the others mentioned here, this herb is one I also take during the daytime to mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation. When taken regularly, it can help our bodies cope with the stress of not getting enough sleep.
Other relaxing nervines worth experimenting with: Skullcap, Valerian, Hops, Passionflower, Motherwort, Blue Vervain.
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The information in this article does not constitute medical advice. It's not intended to diagnose or prescribe. Always thoroughly research an herb before taking it, and any decisions you make regarding your own health are always your own.
*Thanks to Betty Rocker for the "all or something" sentiment.