I just need a decent night’s sleep!

How to have good sleep habits

Getting a good night’s sleep is so good for us all, but no more so than for family carers of people with dementia. We know that good sleeping patterns are essential for our physical and mental well-being. As carers, we feel stressed when we believe we don’t have the resources to cope with whatever demands are being placed on us, and lack of sleep really depletes our resources.

But, despite how important it is for us to sleep, we’re not very good at it! The 2016 Great British Sleep Survey found that 63.1% of people feel they don’t get enough sleep. Poor sleepers are seven times more likely to feel hopeless and five times more likely to feel alone. Therefore, as family carers, our need for good quality sleep is a vital component for reducing stress and increasing our resilience.

So, how about you? Do you struggle to get off to sleep? Or often have a restless night, leaving you tired and irritable the next day? If so, you’re definitely not alone. Our sleep tends to be affected by 4 things: our environment, our routine (or lack of it), our behaviour, and our thoughts/emotions. Here are my top tips for a better night’s sleep:

Environment: Keep your bedroom free from clutter, try to have as dimly lit a room as possible (use a nightlight if that’s helpful), replace your mattress every 8 years, have your phone on silent and keep the room temperature as cool as possible.

Routine: Our bodies naturally produce a chemical in our brains called melatonin, which helps us to get to sleep. When we are in a good routine of going to bed at the same time every night, our bodies learn to produce melatonin at that time. Try to go to bed at about the same time every night. Have a night time routine that starts to calm you down, e.g. take a warm bath, and/or practice deep breathing before bed.

Behaviour: Exercise or walk every day. Increasing exposure to natural light during the day increases melatonin production, so a daytime walk outside can really help sleep. Cut down on caffeine after 2pm. Avoid alcohol just before bedtime to give your body time to metabolise it. Don’t consume fizzy drinks or high sugar foods for 3 hours before bed, ideally. Banish all LCD screens at night (laptops, tablets, smartphones, TV), although it may be a good idea to try using relaxation apps/cds.

Thoughts: Low mood and anxiety are often characterised by being awake, and unable to get back to sleep, between the hours of 3-5am. Thoughts that can keep us awake are: worries about the recent past, current problems and anxieties about the future. On top of these worries and anxieties, when we are aware that we’re not sleeping, that can make us anxious that we should be asleep and our stress levels rise, making it even harder to get to sleep. I’ve definitely experienced that horrible vicious cycle myself! One approach that has really helped me with sleep is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT teaches people that trying to resist worry is unhelpful and instead we should just accept that this is the way things are right now and to stop fighting. I find it helpful to keep a notebook and pen by my bed so I write down any things I remember to do, or worries that I need to address the next day. Then I tell myself that I will deal with it tomorrow. An ACT approach also suggests that if you’re struggling to sleep just comfort yourself with the knowledge that your body is resting while it’s lying in bed. So, don’t panic. You may not be asleep, but you are giving your body a well-earned rest. And that’s ok.

It is known that we tend to have poorer sleep as we get older; for example, many peri-menopausal and menopausal women find it really difficult to sleep at night. Also, conditions such as sleep apnoea, chronic pain and restless legs can interrupt sleep. If there are physical health problems that are affecting your sleep it is definitely worth seeking advice from your GP. However, whatever the issue, helping our bodies to get into ‘sleep mode’ with the tips I’ve suggested is something that is worth trying and may well benefit you.

I hope this has been a helpful read. As a carer of a person with dementia you may be under a great deal of strain and looking after yourself, which includes getting enough sleep, is vital. I am now going to practice what I preach and try to buy a new mattress – it’s definitely been well over 8 years since I bought it!

Dr Gemima Fitzgerald
Clinical Psychology Lead