How many times have we heard the words “If only I could get a good night’s sleep?” A lot, if an Australian survey on sleep habits is anything to go by. This reasearch revealed that 80% of Australians experience insomnia at some stage in their lives and that women are much more likely than men to have difficulty falling asleep.

Insomnia is not a disease itself but rather a constellation of symptoms. These include difficulty getting to sleep, waking during the night and having difficulty getting back to sleep, waking too early in the morning and feeling tired upon waking.

The impact of insomnia is frightening.

Lack of sleep can impair concentration, decrease productivity and affect a person’s quality of life. A loss of 1.5 hours sleep can reduce daytime alertness by one-third. Insomnia has been associated with a range of health issues from anxiety and depression to diabetes and obesity. Sleepiness and fatigue are responsible for 29% of accidents around the home, 52% of accidents in the workplace and the NRMA (motoring organisation in NSW) estimates that fatigue caused by conditions such as insomnia is responsible for one in every six Australian road fatalities.

The increasing pressure of balancing work and family responsibilities is a major factor contributing to mothers’ poor sleeping. The enormous pressures associated with today’s busy lifestyle mean that often the first chance a mother gets to relax and reflect on the day is when she goes to bed, and then it’s hard to switch off the thinking process and get to sleep. Not being able to sleep often leads to anxiety about not sleeping and that can actually trigger longer-term insomnia.

Despite the high prevalence of insomnia, less than half of those suffering from insomnia or sleep disturbance seek professional help.

There are certain times in a mother’s life, when sleep problems commonly emerge. Late in pregnancy pressure from the enlarged uterus can cause reflux and urinary frequency resulting in frequent night time wakening. When infants and toddlers wake multiple times during the night, a mother’s sleep will be disturbed. Anxiety associated with teenagers (and their late nights out!) is sure to exacerbate insomnia, and, of course menopause symptoms often interfere with sleep. Even though sleep disturbance is unavoidable in certain mothering situations, it is very common for insomnia to continue after that situation has resolved because sleep patterns have been disturbed.

So, what are some tips for a good night’s sleep?

The first important step to cure insomnia is to have what’s called good “sleep hygiene”. Sleep hygiene refers to the habits that you develop around sleeping. The following is a list of good sleep hygiene tips:
  • Establish a bedtime routine, go to bed when you feel tired and get up at the same time every day (rather than make up for the insomnia)
  • Avoid daytime napping which can affect night time sleeping. An exception to this rule is for mothers doing night time feeds. Short naps, when your baby is sleeping during the day are OK if you are missing night time sleep because of feeding.
  • If you are awake after 25 minutes in bed, get up and read (rather than reading in bed) or do something that’s non-stimulating, then go back to bed when you get your next wave of sleepiness
  • Don’t drink alcohol within 3 hours of going to bed as it will make you wake up again later in the night
  • Limit you caffeine intake as it can stay in your body for up to 10 hours
  • Avoid other stimulants such as tobacco before going to bed (in fact, it’s always a good idea to give up smoking!)
  • Exercise during the day, but don’t exercise within 3 hours of bedtime as it will hype you up and make it hard to sleep
  • Avoid large meals before bed. Certain foods can interfere with sleep. Salty foods, tomatoes, spinach, smoked meats and pickles trigger the release of adrenaline which can keep you awake. A high carbohydrate, low protein dinner is better for healthy sleeping. Foods such as yoghurt, turkey, figs and milk contain a natural sleeping agent which will help you get to sleep.

For some people who experience ongoing insomnia, it may be helpful to use a sleep support medication for a short time. A lot of people are concerned about becoming addicted to sleeping tablets and are resistant to using them altogether, and certainly, the older style benzodiazepines have been linked to addiction and overuse problems. But there is a time and place for short term medications and there are newer medications that are non-addictive, work quickly to induce quality sleep, but are short acting so you don’t feel groggy in the morning. Some of the newer medications not only help you get to sleep, but are very effective in maintaining the natural sleep stages during the night, which ultimately helps to re-establish a normal, healthy sleeping pattern. Sleep medications can be very useful, but the average person should only use them one or two times a week for a short time. These medications must be prescribed by your doctor, and as with many medications, require special consideration during pregnancy and breast-feeding.

It’s important for mothers to talk to their GP about any sleep problems they may be experiencing. Insomnia is a real health issue and it has both psychological and physical repercussions. But with a good sleep plan and some simple techniques, sleep problems can be overcome.