I developed the unfortunate habit as a child of sleeping on my front. Well, I would start on my front, then move to my left hand side, then roll onto my front, then try the right hand side, then the front again, and so it would continue until, exhausted, I’d eventually drift off. I improved a bit over the years, but really only made significant improvements in my process around sleep fairly recently. The following are some of the mental leaps (of, mostly, common sense) that have got me to the point of now enjoying consistently satisfying, restful sleep. And given that we spend (or certainly should spend) around a third of our lives asleep, this is absolutely an area worth trying to optimise. So, read on…
First, the basics:
Principle #1 – Darkness
Your bedroom should be dark. It’s that simple. Achieve this with black-out curtain linings, turning off lights (which may involve covering electrical gadget ‘standby’ lights with insulating tape to cover their red glow) etc. Additionally, try to avoid bright lights when preparing for sleep (i.e. banish gadgets from the bedroom, and don’t watch television). If your environment is bright in a way that you can’t fix, consider wearing an eye mask to create your own personal version of darkness.
Principle #2 – Silence
Again: this is fairly obvious; noise is distracting when we’re trying to get to sleep and disturbing for the unconscious mind when we actually are asleep. I live above a fairly busy road which suffers from sporadic late-night traffic noise, so my own solution (the aural version of the “eye mask” tip) is to use earplugs.
My absolute favourites (inexpensive, comfortable, and secure) are the mould-your-own earplugs from a little British company called “ProGuard”; I carry these everywhere and, as well as using them daily for sleep, I frequently use them on public transport, in the office, in fact anywhere where I need a little peace (which is a lot of places). They work particularly well for blissful nighttime use because they sit flush within the concha of the ear, and so will not fall out when your ear comes into contact with the pillow.
Principle #3 – A Cold Room
One of the main reasons for that classic “restless” night of sleep is that you’re too hot, so will subconsciously toss and turn to try to get some cooler air under the duvet. The simple solution is to reduce the temperature of the room and/or to choose a thinner (lower “TOG” value) duvet. In Singapore, I tend to have the thinnest duvet I can find, and set the room temperature to a relatively chilly (for Singapore) 23 degrees. Personal experimentation is the key here, so find out what works for you.
Principle #4 – No Caffeine after 4pm
The timing of this will vary from person to person, but I find that I can’t expect to sleep well if I drink coffee (or black tea, which contains caffeine) after 4pm. So, I don’t. This requires some discipline, as I really do like my coffee!
Principle #5 – An Empty Bladder
Similar to the “caffeine” point, I find that I shouldn’t drink any sizeable amount of liquid (>1 mug) after around 9pm, or I will find myself waking around 3am to stumble to the toilet. So, again, I try to avoid this.
Additional Recommendations for Additional Comfort
Now for the interesting stuff, for anyone with the basics above covered. For many years, I suffered from an uncomfortably stiff neck and/or shoulders. A fortuitous visit to a masseuse in Thailand (who actually attempted to address the root cause of my problem rather than temporarily fixing the symptoms) clarified the source of this problem for me and presented the simple solutions.
Over more recent years I had at least graduated from sleeping on my front (which put my neck at an awkward right angle to my body), to sleeping on my side. I have no idea why I can’t sleep on my back, but it just is what it is; maybe due to some innate human preference for the foetal position.
However, I was still making two simple and important mistakes, which had simple remedies:
- The first was to have the wrong height of pillow: I had chosen one in a showroom by lying on my back (ridiculous, really, as I never slept on my back!). Correcting this was simple: revisit the showroom, and choose a pillow by lying on my side and ensuring that the height of the pillow kept my neck straight, in line with my spine, and parallel to the mattress. For extra comfort I chose a “Tempur” pillow which softens with body heat to mould pleasantly to the head and neck position.
- The second was to have never properly addressed the “knee” issue. This may be an problem particularly for me as a taller-than-average, bonier-than-average sort of person, and involved the discomfort (when lying on my side) of either having my knees knocking together, or putting one past the other (so that both rested against the mattress rather than against each other). The former was uncomfortable, the latter involved a twist of my hips that effectively forced my head to the right or left of its natural central point vs. the alignment of my spine. This issue was thoroughly solved by use of a “bolster“; a cylindrical pillow that you put between your knees (and ‘hug’, maybe a little tragically) which allows you to maintain straight hips and spine. Using a bolster instantly puts me in a very comfortable, neutral position that I generally wake up in after falling asleep in that position: a minor miracle in itself! The bolster concept was something I only really came across in S.E. Asia (possibly due to the additional side-effect that it provides some much needed air-circulation around the legs in these hot and humid environments), but the sleep-postural benefits are really significant.
The benefits of 7-8 hours of uninterrupted, recuperative sleep are immense: this was a state I would randomly experience on very occasional days for much of my adult life, and something that I now enjoy on a much more regular basis. I hope that some of the tips above resonate with you: you have nothing to lose by trying them out!