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Credit: Everett Collection
"Who let the dogs out?!?! Who! Who! Who! Who let the dogs out?!" As I flitted in and out of sleep, the grating chorus nipped at the outer edges of my consciousness like an angry Rottweiler.
I had been lobbying for months to change our alarm. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which side of the bed you sleep on), it was the only song annoying enough to rouse my husband, whose late night work schedule--combined with bouts of insomnia and chronic sleep apnea--kept us both in a fairly steady state of sleep deprivation.
I pushed two little kid legs and the rear end of my obese Labrador out of my way and staggered toward the clock. "6:45" read the blue lights, which, in my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged delirium, bounced around the room like a pair of electronic dice. I groaned as I smashed my index finger into the snooze button. Having just returned from a three-day business trip to London, I was exhausted: Pimples covered my chin, dark circles shadowed my eyes, and my internal clock had the unsteady rhythm of a drunk marching band. "I'm just going to count to 40 and then I'll get up," I mumbled to my husband before crashing back into bed.
By the time I woke up 45 minutes later, my husband was gone. My 10-year-old son, however, was still snoring quietly on the bed. I glanced frantically at the clock and a frisson of panic shot up my spine. "It's 7:30! Alex, get up! You missed the bus!" I ran into the kitchen, furiously grabbing a box of granola bars, which nudged a half-sealed bag off the shelf. Within seconds, thousands of tiny black chia seeds cascaded through the air like a hailstorm from parenting hell.
One might chalk this whole scene up to a very manic Monday, but the truth is these decidedly un-zen mornings were far from an anomaly. Even when I wasn't jet-lagged, my sleep was routinely compromised by homework struggles, bedtime battles, and an overreliance on the restorative powers of Netflix and chardonnay. In recent months, I had often just thrown in the towel and gone to bed at the same time as my kids, with my most sleep-challenged child tucked under my arm like a teddy bear. I would wake up between 4 and 5 a.m. just so I could have some me time. This seemed to work for a little while until those inevitable nights when I would slip back into a more normal adult bedtime--and then still find myself wide awake at 4 a.m. By 3 o'clock the next afternoon, I'd be wilting into my Starbucks.
Determined to get myself back on track, I started reading Arianna Huffington's best-selling book The Sleep Revolution. The basic tenets of good sleep hygiene are pretty straightforward: Shoot for seven to nine hours a night, eliminate electronics at least a half hour before bed (in addition to overstimulating your brain, the blue lights inhibit production of the sleep hormone melatonin), get more sunlight (especially early in the morning, as it helps regulate sleep/wake hormones), cut down on caffeine and booze, and turn your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary. "It should be dark and inviting," Huffington tells me when we speak a few days later on the phone. "And a nice nightstand is key." She suggests decorating it with items that promote sleep and trigger joy: a beautiful lamp with low light, a single-stemmed flower, a candle, a picture of your kids or your dog ...
After raiding my local bodega for some peonies and staging my bedside sleep shrine, I Marie Kondo-ed the clutter (good-bye, agita-inducing parenting books) and unplugged as much as I could: my digital alarm clock, iPad, laptop. My husband drew the line at the flat-screen TV and cable box, so--following Huffington's advice--I covered the tiny lights with masking tape.
Though many sleep experts recommend getting up and going to bed at the same time every day (even on the weekends), Huffington isn't a stickler on this point. "It's not realistic for most people," she says. One sleep rule on which she will not bend? Logging the seven to nine hours a night. "People think they can get by on five or six hours." In reality only about 5 percent of the population have a rare genetic mutation that allows them to do this. "To determine your optimal bedtime, figure out what time you need to wake up and then count backward by eight hours," advises Huffington. If you have some flexibility--and really want to maximize your bang for your bedtime--try not to miss the hours between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. In his book Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson, founder of the popular podcast The Model Health Show, calls this the "money time" because it is when your body produces the most melatonin and human growth hormone, aka the "youth hormone." The absence of this restorative window may explain why some people who go to sleep very late at night may still feel groggy in the morning, even after they get eight full hours of sleep. Another cause of early-morning sleep inertia? Traditional, fixed-time alarm clocks, which may go off during the deepest phase of your sleep cycle (see sidebar below for a better alternative).
The biggest challenges for me were cutting down on coffee (only one cup a day and never after 2 p.m.) and rewriting my behavior in the hours leading up to that 10 p.m. curfew, which were normally squandered on the same sleep-sucking trifecta almost every night: sipping, snacking, and social media. Drinking a glass or two of wine before bed may help you fall asleep more quickly initially, but it tends to give you poor-quality rest because it prevents your body from progressing to the deepest levels of REM sleep (if you overindulge, it can also wake you up as the dehydrating effects of alcohol kick in). "If you are going to have a glass of wine, it's much better to have it during happy hour rather than right before bed," says Alanna McGinn, founder of the sleep-coaching website Good Night Sleep Site.
And so, instead of pouring myself a glass of wine and settling down with my iPhone the minute I wrestled my kids into bed, I filled the two hours before bedtime with relaxing new rituals. I started taking a hot bath scented with calming lavender bath salts and illuminated by flickering tea lights every night (I even bought a waterproof speaker for the bath so I could play soothing spa music as I soaked). After the bath I retreated to my bedroom with the most nonstimulating book I could find. "Try fiction or philosophy," Huffington advised. "And make it a real book! No e-readers or e-books." When I mentioned hopefully that I had switched my iPhone to night settings--so the background turns a soft, sedating yellow around 9 p.m. instead of a harsh, stimulating blue--Huffington didn't relent. "It's not just the blue light," she said. "It's the fact that our phones and tablets are our whole life and we're addicted to them." (In fact, researchers now believe technology stimulates a dopamine loop similar to that generated by cocaine or gambling.) "If we bring our smartphones into bed, we are going to be tempted not just to read, but perhaps check our email or see how our Instagram account is doing. Realistically, very few of us--and that includes me--have the willpower not to do that."
A few days into my new sleep-friendly routine--which included relocating all my devices to a family docking station in the living room a half hour before bed--I noticed that I no longer needed an alarm. I was waking up--without any barking--around 6 a.m. I felt more alert and refreshed than I had in weeks. Going running after morning drop-off now felt like a luxury, not a chore, and the brain fog that had dogged me for weeks seemed to have lifted. After two weeks my skin looked brighter and my jeans even fit better (studies show shortened sleep increases ghrelin, the hunger hormone, so I probably wasn't just imagining that I also felt less hungry). The best part? My mood. Instead of peeling myself out of bed each morning with cotton-headed dread, I bounded out of the covers and into my kids' bedrooms with something approximating joy. And for that, I would happily give up all the vanilla lattes and Instagram updates in the world.