Tips for a good night's sleep on World Sleep Day

March 2022

Ruth Lin has been a member of WAY for seven years. When she was first widowed, she only got about four hours' sleep a night but now she enjoys up to seven hours of shut eye. She helps people with sleeping issues in her professional life and, to mark World Sleep Day, she shares her thoughts on what has helped her to get a good night's sleep...

"When I first became a widow, I knew I'd only get about four hours of sleep a night. I'd studied grief as part of my profession as a clinical psychologist and so, on reflection, knowing my sleep would be disturbed helped me cope.

In the early days of widowhood, my pattern was to stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning and then I'd get four hours sleep and wake up at a pretty normal time of 7. I did it this way as I didn't want to be lying awake at 4 in the morning unable to get back to sleep. Plus, as my husband ran restaurants, I was used to staying up late waiting for him to come home from work sometime around midnight.

After his death from acute myeloid leukaemia, I had mountains of admin to do closing two restaurants down and, once I'd done random chores, I'd sit down in the evening with a huge mug of tea and a measure of whisky; the tea was comforting and the whisky seemed to warm me up inside so I felt something different to just grief. I did find folk to talk to who were awake too and one introduced me to the Audible app and reading poetry – I couldn't concentrate on reading books.

We moved house when we were two years in and I remember my then eight-year-old waking up around midnight most nights and coming into my bed. He had a habit of sleeping diagonally, so I was just glad I had a big bed, and although this continued for a while, it has faded away gradually.

Slowly over the years my sleep has got better but I'm very aware it is a constant theme amongst members of WAY Widowed and Young. To mark World Sleep Day, I have gathered some tips on how to get a better night's sleep:

Write your thoughts down

Having a nighttime/bedtime routine is supposed to be good if you're a routine kind of person. Of course, your whole life is turned upside down when you're widowed so I'm not going to major on such things here!

Go to sleep when you're tired – but avoiding daytime naps may help. However, if you're exhausted from your grief, grab naps when you need.

Journalling or making notes: somewhere to write down the thoughts in your head can help.

Sight

This may be hard in the modern world, but try not to look at any screens from about 90 minutes before hitting the sack. The blue light from our laptops and mobiles mimics bright sunlight and so our brain thinks it's time to be awake. Maybe buying amber-tinted glasses can help or adjusting the screen colour on your mobile to cut out blue light is also an option. Some even say don't even have your gadgets charging in your room and turn all standby lights off in your bedroom.

Red light – this colour light is the least wake inducing for our circadian rhythm, so if you need a light on at night for any reason, a red one is least disruptive.

I have a streetlight right outside my bedroom window so I do have blackout blinds. The darker the better. An eye mask can help too.

Sound

Now this I have explored with my faithful Audible app with stories or textbooks. I set its sleep timer and most times I will be asleep before the book stops being read to me. There are other apps to help you go to sleep, like CALM, and Spotify has sleep playlists too.

Other WAY members have said listening to a story they know really well helps or just having the radio on in the background. Podcasts like 'sleepwithme' claim to put you to sleep! Of course, reading a book in bed can help too.

Touch

Being comfy – whether that's with a comfy bed, mattress or pillows, and also the temperature of the room. Research suggests having the bedroom cooler but on a chilly night a hot water bottle can help. Also wearing socks can help if cold toes wake you up! I've not tried the new weighted blankets but some people love them.

There's also a technique called Havening, which is like self-soothing, where you rub the tops of your arms up and down like giving yourself a hug; this can release soothing hormones and help us relax before sleep.

Pillows – I noticed my three sons became 'nesters'. They had about seven pillows each and snuggled into their beds. I know we all have different ways and positions to sleep in but something to cuddle like a soft pillow can be comforting.

Exercise – there are specific gentle exercises to help sleep and relaxation exercises can relax our body. Vigorous exercise is best done several hours before bedtime.

Taste

Caffeine – I hardly have it anymore; some of us are more sensitive to it than others, just be sensible with what you drink and when. Coffee, sugary drinks and energy drinks before bed are not going to give us good sleep.

A warm drink can help. There are many nighttime teas on the market, from good old camomile to mixes of herbs.
Eating loads of food late at night may not be the best idea for a great sleep but as digestion takes a lot of energy, it could be that being full will help you doze off.

Medication – GPs can prescribe pills and herbal remedies are also available. I've not gone down this route, sleeping pills can help you get to sleep but can alter the quality of the sleep you have.

One thing I do take is a regular magnesium supplement before bed; it relaxes my muscles and stops me getting leg cramps too.

Scent

Lavender pillow mist or a few drops of a nighttime essential oil may help. Or having a favourite item of clothing of your loved one to snuggle with. A warm bath with a relaxing oil can help too."

Thanks to Ruth for sharing her tips. Look out on our social media feeds for more words of wisdom from WAY members.