This is Part Four of How to Sleep Like a Baby.
Okay, maybe you’ve embraced the possibility of getting a good night’s sleep despite the interruptions and maybe you’re waking up in sync with your baby, but what if you keep finding yourself awake long after your baby goes back down?
This happened to me fairly regularly for a while. I’ve perused advice for insomniacs, but most of it seems oriented toward establishing conditions conducive to sleep at the beginning of the night. Who wants to repeat a bedtime ritual or go drink warm milk every time you get up in the night? (Okay, your baby probably does want that. But that’s not my point.) It’s odd that most sleep advice focuses solely on external conditions, since sleep is an inward mental process. What you’re doing with your mind affects how readily you fall asleep.
First off, lying still in bed often isn’t enough for me to fall back asleep. I can tell myself that I’m trying to fall asleep, but if everything I’m doing with my mind says the opposite, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that sleep doesn’t happen. Maybe that’s okay; sometimes I need quiet time to think uninterrupted more than I need sleep, and I’ve had valuable insights from thinking in bed at night. So the first thing to ask yourself when you’re lying in bed at night is, do I really want to fall asleep right now? Or am I more excited to be thinking about something else?
When I am on the track to falling asleep, my thoughts become less verbal than they are during the day and more pictorial. As I get closer and closer to sleep, I start seeing things–hypnagogic images–that don’t make sense by wakeful standards. By contrast, if I’m holding onto an excited or anxious train of thought, it’s usually got a lot of words in it. I’m not alone in this pattern: insomniacs experience less hypnagogic imagery than people who fall asleep readily.
I’ve found that shifting my thoughts from words to images usually puts me to sleep relatively quickly. This shift is helpful not only because it jumpstarts the hypnagogic images that precede sleep, but also because translating thoughts into images lets me manipulate them to my benefit. Here are some of the techniques I’ve used:
-Think of an interesting dream image or anything else appropriately surreal: your baby riding bareback on a horse, whatever. Start animating the image and then watch it like a kaleidoscope to see where it goes or what it changes into next.
-Pick a set of words / objects you find interesting. I usually use the four elements, but you could also use something like colors or the rooms in your childhood home. Free-associate on each of them in turn, using words or images or both. The goal is to let the associations build momentum and take off on their own, so that you can sit back and watch them. If you notice that you’ve actively started thinking about something unrelated, just jump to the next item on the list. This approach is a little like counting sheep or counting breaths, except that counting things doesn’t work for me because it’s boring.
-If you find yourself repeatedly returning to the same thought, you might try conjuring up a sleep spider. I imagine a giant spider like Shee-Lob in The Lord of the Rings, but more delicate. My sleep spider bites the thought I’m stuck on, paralyzes it, and wraps it up in a cocoon for later. I picture her wrapping up the idea with as much detail as I can, until I can’t see what I was thinking about any more, only the bright spider silk around it. I know that the idea will stay safe there until morning, and I don’t need to think of it any more right now.
This is one of my favorite techniques because of the eerie feeling I get when I’m done: “I know I was just thinking of something, but what?” At that point you should shrug and let your mind drift, rather than trying to remember what you were thinking about. But another approach to obsessive trains of thought is to get up and go to the bathroom, telling yourself that you’ll go to sleep when you get back to bed. That worked really well for me when I was pregnant.
-If you’re uncomfortable and can’t do anything about it, you can try translating that into an image, too. I’ve watched anxiety sit in my stomach glowing like a miniature sun, moving slowly across the sky. I’ve gotten a fever and seen myself back at a childhood sleepover, getting sweaty in my pink flannel sleeping bag.
-If you keep thinking about how you won’t be able to get enough rest to function or if you have more serious sleep problems, read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia and maybe think about consulting a specialist to help you change your thought patterns and sleep associations. You can do it online, even.
What do your thoughts look like right before you fall asleep? As you try to get back to sleep, can you make your thoughts look more like how you think right before you conk out?