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Why Moms Can’t Sleep

More and more moms are saying they aren't getting anywhere near enough ZZZs -- and it's wrecking their health, their careers, even their marriages.

Smart Sleep Solutions

Women who want to be cured of their mom insomnia can break out of their bad sleep cycle. How? That depends on when you have trouble sleeping, and why. Here are some guidelines for women who have trouble falling asleep:

Start a "worry book." If you have trouble falling asleep because you're too wired to relax, try starting a "worry book," suggests Joyce A. Walsleben, Ph.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at New York University School of Medicine and author of A Woman's Guide to Sleep. "Some people can't fall asleep because they're worrying about problems or things they need to do," she says. To put these issues on hold before bedtime, spend 15 minutes earlier in the day writing down what's nagging you, whether that's your child's falling grades or your unpaid bills. Then, later on, jot down the first steps toward solutions, whether that's "Call my child's teacher tomorrow" or "Balance my checkbook." "This list will allow you to leave these problems behind until morning, since you know you won't forget them," says Walsleben.

Bar stress from your bed. Another way to prevent your worries from keeping you up at bedtime: Avoid doing things in bed that cause stress, advises Meir Kryger, M.D., a sleep specialist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. "Bringing work projects to bed or completing tax forms there allows the mind to associate the bed with stress, and that can keep you awake even when you're not doing those tasks in bed."

Avoid sleep aids and alcohol. Tempted to try sleep aids or to drink a few glasses of wine to relax? Neither is a good idea, say experts. "Alcohol is a depressant and may help you fall asleep, but within a few hours your body will begin metabolizing the alcohol, which may wake you up and keep you awake," points out Wolfson. Over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids, on the other hand, make almost half the women who take them feel drowsy the next day, serving only to throw another wrench into their sleep patterns.

Tactics for Tired Moms

Women who fall asleep too early, then pop awake at 3am, on the other hand, face the opposite challenge: How can they stay awake long enough to get into a normal nighttime sleeping pattern? Sleep experts offer these solutions:

Ask yourself if your kids are the problem. Does your child depend on your presence to fall asleep, forcing you to sit or lie so still that you drift off with her? If so, you have to help your child fall asleep without you, says Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night. One of the most popular techniques for getting kids to go to sleep on their own is "Ferberizing," developed by Richard Ferber, M.D., of Children's Hospital in Boston. Parents respond to a child who cries out at night, to make sure he's okay -- but then immediately leave the room rather than pick him up, rock him, feed him or do anything that may convince him that his tactics will get attention. If the child continues crying, they check again in 10, then 15, then 20 minutes. On subsequent nights, they extend the interval by five minutes a night, waiting 15, 20, then 25 minutes. Most infants will start sleeping through the night in one to two weeks' time, says Mindell. Offering older kids small rewards (such as a family game of Pictionary or extra TV time) in return for their staying in their own beds will also encourage them to fall asleep on their own.

Force yourself to stay awake. Veg out in front of the television and of course you risk dozing off early. Instead, perform activities that require enough effort on your part to keep you awake. Phone a friend (you can even set up a hot line with a pal who also struggles to stay up), or replace your evening reading with needlework, which helped Ruth Miller shift her bedtime from 9 to 11:30pm-- and to sleep through the night. "Reading puts me to sleep, but doing something with my hands keeps me alert," she says. And while it may be tempting to drink coffee in the evening to stay up, don't: It can take up to seven hours for your system to rid itself of caffeine, meaning you may be awake longer than you'd like, warns Janet Kinosian, author of The Well-Rested Woman.

Limit your time in bed. Moms who nod off early and then wake up numerous times throughout the night can also try a technique called sleep restriction, says Andrew Krystal, M.D., a sleep specialist and associate professor at Duke University. Rather than spend nine hours in bed tossing and turning, restrict the time you spend in bed to six or seven hours. "By restricting the time you spend in bed, you're forcing yourself to become so tired that you do sleep through that period," explains Krystal. If after a few days you're spending less than 80 percent of that time sleeping, shorten your sleep time by 15 minutes, gradually reducing the amount of time you spend in bed until you are sleeping through the entire period. "This forces your body to become accustomed to better 'sleep efficiency,' meaning that you sleep all the way through the time you spend in bed," says Krystal. Once you're sleeping 85 percent or more of your time in bed, expand the time you spend there by 15 minutes, gradually adding 15-minute increments as you get better at sleeping through the night.

If you can't sleep, get out of bed. What if, despite your efforts, you still find yourself awake in the middle of the night? If you've tried to sleep but failed for 20 minutes, get out of bed, recommends Kryger. "Spending hours in bed trying to get to sleep makes you associate the bedroom with frustration," he explains. Instead, until you get sleepy, move to another room and engage in an activity that's not going to excite you a lot, whether that's doing a crossword puzzle or organizing your closet.

Resist the night-owl impulse. Perhaps the most incurable insomniacs are the moms who actually enjoy being night owls: They have so many responsibilities that during the day they deny themselves the alone time they need -- only to make up for it by indulging at night. "It's part of our human condition to want some downtime," says Zammit. "But compromising on sleep isn't the right way to get it. It will only make you tired and miserable in the long run." The only way these women will wean themselves off nightly "me" time, says Zammit, is to find time during the day to do things they enjoy. Hiring a baby-sitter once a week not in the budget? Try swapping baby-sitting duties with friends or sign up for Mothers Morning Out programs, which offer affordable child care to give parents some free time (contact your local community center for a program in your area).

For Jennifer MacLennan, 34, of Ridgeland, Missouri, sending her 3-year-old son to Mothers Morning Out gave her the time she needed to recharge her batteries and not cut corners on sleep. "Now I go to the gym," she says. "Being able to work out early in the morning makes it so easy to get more sleep at night, and that's made all the difference in my energy level."

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