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Epilogue: Sleep Lessons Learned

Looking back at my old approach to sleep, and knowing what I know now, it's a wonder I got any sleep at all. I used to go to bed at different hours every night. For years, I slept on a mattress that was way past its prime. I often forced myself to go to bed long before I was sleepy, and had no consistent bedtime ritual at all.

Now I try to go to bed at the same time every night. I follow the same simple routine — PJs on, brush teeth, etc. — in the same order every night. Most importantly, I make myself aware that these simple activities are not just annoying chores, but part of a consistent sleep ritual. Being of conscious of that sends a powerful message to my brain that it's time to gear down.

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Gearing Down the Body and the Brain

And gearing down is a big part of it for me. It used to be that as soon as the lights went out and my head hit the pillow, my mind would start racing. I'd replay the events of the day, think about things I had to do the following day, anticipate problems, think about schedules. Sometimes, I'd brood over things that bothered me or worried me. Other times, I anticipated things I was looking forward to.

But whether the thoughts were positive or negative, the result was always the same: my conscious mind was building up steam just when it should have been shutting down the engines. Over the years, I'd conditioned myself to use bedtime as a time for furious thought. No wonder my mind was so reluctant to give up consciousness; there was still so much work to do, it didn't want to let go of the day.

Now, when I hit the sack, I use some simple breathing exercises to calm things down physically. And I pre-empt the irresistible mental chatter with something I think of as a prayer — I picture the people I care about, I silently wish them well, I remember the loved ones I've lost, etc. The thing is, I do this in the same order, with the same words, every night. After a few years, it has taken on the feeling of a litany, almost a chant. I can do it almost without thinking. It puts me in a meditative state almost immediately, and I barely finish the prayer before nodding off.

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It's also been helpful to understand that a lot of my insomnia was caused by a delayed sleep cycle. If my circadian rhythm had its way, I'd go to bed at 2:30 in the morning, and wake up at about 11:45. Before I understood this, I'd either try to force myself to fall asleep early, which never worked, or I'd stay up all hours and wake up wasted. I don't fight the rhythm so much anymore. I try to be in bed by 12:30, and since I work at home, and have a very flexible schedule that allows me to sleep a little later than most people, that usually works fine.

I have to be careful though, because the body's natural cycle is a powerful thing, and it's easy to backslide into bad habits. For example, if I'm on a tough deadline, and I spend a few nights working into the wee hours, I'll find myself back at square one — wanting to hit the sack at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., then sleep until late morning. When that happens, the whole sleep experiences starts to unravel. I go to bed at different hours each night, I abandon my bedtime ritual, I find myself lying in bed, brooding about all the work I didn't get done. It takes a real effort to turn things around. But now I know how to do that.

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Raising a Child with Good Sleep Habits

Ironically, there was an upside to being such a night owl. When my daughter Carmela was a baby I intentionally let the rhythm take over. I was a natural for night duty, which allowed my wife to sleep soundly and wake up fresh for work in the morning. I'd sleep until late morning, work until early evening, my wife would hit the sack after putting the baby to bed, and I'd take the night shift without breaking a sweat.

Carmela is five now, and a pretty serious night-owl in her own right. From the moment she graduated from the crib, she refused to stay in her big girl bed. Her day was not yet finished. There were puzzles to finish and stuffed animals to attend to. We'd tried to put her to bed at 8:30, but that made her miserable, and she'd have trouble sleeping all night.

So we came up with a new routine: now she gets a bath, puts her PJs on, brushes her teeth, gets her stuffed animals in order, and then crawls into bed. We read her a few books, then she's allowed to play quietly in her room until she gets sleepy. She usually plays until 9:30, then goes to bed on her own and sleeps through the night. If I hadn't learned to understand my own sleep problems, I might still be trying to force her to bed an hour before her body was ready for it. Without knowing it, I'd be teaching her to be an insomniac, just like her old man.

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