A Confession: Learning How to Sleep Again

I’m going to go a little off the topic of food today but not off the topic of health. As you can probably attest, getting adequate and good-quality sleep is super important when it comes to feeling your best and experiencing good overall health. But what if you just can’t sleep even when you have the chance? Ugh. Unfortunately, this is something I can relate to all too well.

Learning How to Sleep Again on 100 Days of Real Food

My Growing Insomnia Issue and Getting Help

I used to be an excellent sleeper. In fact, my husband was even envious of how I could just fall right asleep the second my head hit the pillow. But then I had babies. And (inadvertently) started our full-time family business after getting laid off from my corporate job (hello pressure). And decided to write a book. And then another book (which is not fully done yet – don’t remind me!). And built and moved into a new house last year after our kids got redistricted (which involved making a meeellion tiny decisions). And tried to continue to stick to my self-imposed laundry schedule and grocery schedule and children’s ever-growing activity and social schedule with an occasional international trip thrown in the mix along the way.

Yes, I’m type A in case you’re wondering. But regardless, even when things seem like they’re (finally) starting to slow down the list somehow goes on and on – as any other busy parent can attest! And just to be clear, I know these are all good things in life that are keeping us so busy. But, as I read in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, just because things could be worse it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t want to make things better.

As a result of all those things I mentioned above, it has become harder and harder for me to shut my brain off at night. Whether it’s at bedtime or in the middle of the night when I randomly wake up and am devastated to find out it’s only 3 AM, I’m greeted by my new friend insomnia! So I decided it was time to figure out how to regain control of this growing problem of mine before things got any worse. That’s when I found Dr. Kristin Daley, a “sleep doctor” (as I like to call her) that specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia here in Charlotte, NC.

Some of the tips I’ve learned from Dr. Daley have been incredibly helpful so far and, in some cases, so simple! I’ve found myself sharing them with friends whenever I get the chance. So today (with Dr. Daley’s permission), I thought I’d share those tips here on the blog since I know there are many of us out there who could use a little help when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep and feeling rested in the morning.

Sleep Tips from Dr. Daley

If you’re not a great sleeper, then the details matter and can make such a difference. These are simple tips for learning how to sleep that have been helping me so much lately. In fact, while I am still officially going through my “sleep training” to get myself on track, there have been a couple days where I’ve woken up to my 6:30 AM alarm feeling more rested than I have all school year! As in “ready to hop right out of bed” rested. I didn’t know how important some of these things were before now!

  1. White Noise
    I actually have a white noise machine that I use when traveling, but I was not using it at home. Now that my kids are old enough to come to me if they need something in the night, I was told to let that go and block out unwanted noise with the constant shush of a white noise machine (as opposed to one that has the rise and fall of ocean sounds). While it would be ideal to sleep in a completely pristine and quiet environment, it’s not exactly realistic for most of us to achieve in this day and age. No matter what you do, a car might drive by, a bird might chirp, your partner might snore, or your A/C might turn on. It does take a few nights to get used to sleeping with white noise if you’ve never done it before, so be sure to hang in there for this one. I’ve had this machine since my girls were babies. While it’s a little pricey, I love how small it is for travel, and it has been going strong for 11 years now!
  2. No Interruptions
    My husband is a night owl and would often do a little work or watch a little TV after I went to bed. That meant he would creep into our room to join me after I was already asleep, but no matter how quiet he was trying to be (and I know he was), it often sounded to me like he was literally busting through the door. I guess it’s that mother’s instinct of mine on hight alert! And I noticed that my quality of sleep was often really poor for the rest of the night after he came to bed. So we had to nip that in the bud, which thanks to #4 below has not been hard to tackle.
  3. Cool Bedroom (between 65 and 67 degrees F)
    This tip was a little shocking to me. I normally like it much warmer in our house! But apparently it doesn’t matter what’s going on from the neck down. Keeping your head cool is what’s key. So I invested in a heated mattress pad, which allows me to get into a warm bed every night while still following this important rule, which goes back to satisfying our instincts from the caveman days.
  4. Maintain a Strict Sleep and Wake Schedule
    I initially found this tip the most shocking, but (possibly thanks to the other areas of my life that I like to have so scheduled) this has actually been a much easier change than I expected. What this means is that I need to go to bed and wake up at basically the same time every day – even on the weekend. Yikes! AND, the most shocking part is that I’m only supposed to be in bed and sleep for 7 hours each night. I thought for sure I needed more sleep than that, but I’m willing to try anything at this point! The exact requirements may vary slightly from person to person, but this will result in higher quality sleep and help reduce tossing and turning for hours on end.The part I unexpectedly like about this new schedule (11:30 PM – 6:30 AM, with an extra 30 min until 7 AM on the weekends) is that there are no more decisions to be made about when I should go to sleep or wondering if I will be able to fall asleep or if my husband will want to turn in early with me, etc. I also no longer wake up in the morning and wonder if it’s a decent time to get out of bed yet or if I’m going to see 4 AM on the clock. If my alarm hasn’t gone off, then I just try to go back to sleep without having to look at my clock (which is a big no-no!). It’s honestly kind of freeing, and I am getting used to the 7-hour limit.
  5. No Light Exposure at Night (and I mean NONE)
    Say goodbye to your night light, digital clock, and even that little red light on your smoke detector (just put a piece of black electrical tape over it). And since you aren’t supposed to look at your clock at all in the night, it shouldn’t matter if it’s now living under your bed. Also under this category no computer or devices for your last 2 hours before bedtime. Watching TV is okay since it’s not usually right up in your face, but your iphone is definitely off-limits! (Which is honestly not such a bad habit to incorporate.)
  6. Exercise with Intervals
    I was already exercising (usually running 2 to 3 times a week), but apparently I wasn’t increasing my heart rate in brief intervals like I should be. You ideally want 10 different 30-second bursts when you exercise, so I’ve now incorporated sprints into my routine (which will help me run faster anyway!). It’s best to do this every day, but since I want to do exercises other than sprints (and 1 or 2 days a week the option to not exercise at all) I am just doing the best I can with this one.
  7. Unfiltered Outside Time
    This is one of those super simple tips that I had no idea was so important. Unfiltered outside time means no sunglasses, no windows, and no screens. Before meeting with Dr. Daley, I probably NEVER had unfiltered outside time because my sensitive eyes love to be behind sunglasses. This one will help set your circadian rhythm and jive nicely with that super dark room you’ll be keeping at night.
  8. Deep Breathing (for at least 5 minutes each day)
    I suppose some would call this meditating, but it’s really just as simple as 5 minutes of quiet, deep, slow breathing (without letting your thoughts take over) each day. This has probably been one of the harder tips for me to remember to do, but I understand the value and am trying!
  9. Write Down Your Thoughts
    This tip right here is just brilliant. If you sit down and write out a few bullet points with what’s on your mind at the end of each day (both bad and good stuff), then when your brain tries to “save the world” in the middle of the night you can know you’ve already tackled that issue by writing it on your paper. It will of course still be there waiting for you in the morning.
  10. Limit Food and Beverage Before Bed (yes, including wine!)
    I’ve never been an after dinner snack kind of person, but I do love my evening glass of wine. And in many cases, I feel like I need that wine to relax enough to fall asleep. The guideline is to limit your carbohydrates to less than 5 grams within 2 hours of bedtime. So for me, this means I can have no more than one glass of wine between 9:30 and 11:30 pm (my new scheduled bedtime). But I certainly don’t want to rely on wine as a “sleep aid” every night. So right now, I’m trying two nights on and one night off to get my body used to falling asleep all on its own again.
  11. BONUS TIP (from my mother-in-law): Have a Mantra
    I know this might sound all new-agey or something, but seriously – hear me out because it has saved me countless times from pointlessly lying awake at 3 AM for hours on end. Basically, come up with a meaningless phrase that you’ll repeat in your head over and over again the moment you wake up in the middle of the night. I don’t know about you, but when I when I randomly wake up my brain can somehow launch right into a thousand thoughts (good and important thoughts that I am convinced I need to remember the next day) but, alternatively, it is too hard to keep your brain clear and think of nothing. So, instead, block out the thoughts by instantly thinking of your mantra on repeat … it could be “99, 100, 99, 100” over and over or another phrase or number that has absolutely no meaning (and does not make you think of anything else important). When I wake up now I immediately start my mantra and within moments I am back to sleep. It is wonderful!


One of the best things about Dr. Daley is that (as you can see from the tips) she doesn’t believe in giving me sleeping pills to solve my insomnia. As soon as I learned this about her, I knew she was the right person to help me. She also isn’t a big fan of melatonin or other natural supplements because, in some cases, the results might just be a placebo effect, which won’t help in the long run. Being able to sleep all on your own is obviously the best solution!

Sleep Tracker Apps

I’ve been tracking my sleep (as well as my caffeine, exercise, outside time, and wine consumption) on a printed sleep chart for her. I know some watches and apps are popular tools for tracking sleep, but Dr. Daley said she has occasionally seen people who get a little too obsessed with the tracking feature and end up hurting their sleep cycles even more as a result. So just be careful if/when using those! We only do it occasionally!

This is the Sleep Tracker that we own and recommend. We actually bought it for our children, but I’ve tried it a few times and thought it was super interesting to see!

Insomnia and Anxiety

Another interesting tidbit I’ve learned is that at the root of insomnia and anxiety, you’re basically dealing with the same thing – your brain not shutting off. So (as someone who has had my fair share of anxiety in recent years), it’s a relief to know these tips are a great starting point for anyone who struggles with anxiety.

I really hope this advice helps you. If you try these tips out, please come back and let me know how it goes in the comments! :)

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109 thoughts on “A Confession: Learning How to Sleep Again”

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  1. I got rid of caffeine completely about 5 years ago and I sleep like a rock for a solid 5-6 hours. It’s not quite enough but such an improvement over 8-9 hours of poor sleep.

  2. Such a great article – thank you! We’ve had to work on setting good sleep habits with our daughter and use most of what you’ve suggested here! For myself, I have also had a hard time “shutting my brain off” at night. I had tried all kinds of products that didn’t require a prescription because I was concerned about getting addicted, but also had concerns with some supplements like melatonin. I’ve done some research and found a “new” product, REST CBD from MissionFarmsCBD.com that is amazing for me. It is interesting how insomnia and anxiety are so related which makes sense how CBD can provide such relief. It was VERY important to me to find a CBD product that I knew was organic, free of pesticides, and a company that I could trust. https://missionfarmscbd.com/the-science-behind-cbd-and-sleep/

  3. I am 71 and dealing with age related sleep problems. I am going to try this. I do many of these things already but will work on a few more. I have an eye condition which precludes my not wearing sunglasses.
    Is that a problem?Do you know if any older folks have tried this.

  4. Just found this post, but these are great tips. I will be printing them out and working on them. Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. Not only has your book changed my life and now this!! I was literally waiting to pick up anxiety medicine at the pharmacy as I was reading this. I have dealt with anxiety in the past, but my sleep was the newest problem. I thought my anxiety was back, but striking at night. Turns out I just needed to follow all these tips instead! Now I’m sleeping better and not taking any medication to do so. Forever grateful that you shared.
    Thank you

  6. If you are getting in bed at 1130, how long does it take you to fall asleep? If it takes 20 minutes, does that mean you’re actually getting six hours and 40 minutes of sleep? And is this OK? Thanks. Dealing with insomnia off and on myself.

  7. Nicole Hodge Pittaluga

    All great tips! I bought an extra white noise machine for my toddler’s room in case his burned out. We ended up using the extra in our room and we are sleeping so much better!

  8. This is an amazing post. Thank you so much Lisa. I’m 31, with two little kids, and a teaching career. I recently started suffering with anxiety and insomnia. It feels good to know I’m not alone. I will definitely be trying to follow these tips.

  9. Does the outside time have to be in direct sunlight? I am very fair and burn easily. I could definitely do that much outside time, if it would be in the shade.

  10. I use to have insomnia until I learned meditation. Now I can just count down & go to my secret place that is relaxed & peaceful & I fall asleep quickly. Also if I awaken in nite I can count down & am quickly back to sleep.

  11. I am a Pernancy, my body change so lots to adapt with it. I can’t sleep, I feel so anxious . When I go to met my doctor, She said don’t worry about it . But how can I do this, I feed so tired cause sleepness. I will try your advice, hope it can help me. Thanks!!!

  12. I too have issues with insomnia. I used to sleep fine but after having children my sleep habits started to get progressively worse. After the birth of my second child, I was sleeping VERY little (like once a week for a few hours)! The more I didn’t sleep the worse my anxiety and ability to sleep would get. I was like a totally different person – I remember spilling milk on the counter and bursting into tears. I couldn’t cope with anything. Finally my husband convinced me to seek help and I learned that I have all three types/symptoms of insomnia – I have a hard time falling asleep (this is probably the worse of the three), wake often during the night and wake up early without being able to fall asleep again. It was so bad that I was prescribed trazodone to help me sleep. I know a lot of people are against taking meds but I wanted to say that sometimes they are needed and that it’s ok. I seriously could not cope with life because I was sleeping so very little. It has been such a relief to take the meds! My anxiety around sleep is completely gone. While I occasionally have nights when I still can’t sleep, I am sleeping soundly (with dreams/REM sleep) most every night. This has impacted my ability to function and be a good mom/wife in so many ways. If someone reading this is having similar issues and trying the tips Lisa wrote about is not helping, I would encourage you to seek medical help.

  13. This is pretty fascinating. I have suffered from insomnia since my first pregnancy 10+ years ago.

    Some of it is hormonal (example: pregnancy insomnia, and then I noticed that I got insomnia 3 nights in a row, every month. Turns out it’s when I ovulate. Ask me how I know. Because my second child was the result…)

    But yeah, I cannot turn my brain off. And I’m stressed. I’m on vacation and haven’t slept in 2 weeks. First, it was the stress of finishing work before vacation. Then, it was sharing a bed with my toddler on vacation. This problem is 2-fold: first, I go to sleep before he does. So I was delaying my bedtime for him, and then I couldn’t fall asleep. Second, he rotates and kicks.

    Finally last night I got some relief – husband offered to swap.

    So I went to bed at my normal time in the main bed. Glorious! (toddler was awake an extra two hours!!) But once my husband got him to bed, he crawled in with me and started snoring, and woke me at 1 am. Then I couldn’t turn off my brain and was up until 3:30 am at least. I moved to the bed with the toddler. He kicked. Then I went down to the couch.

    Of course, I realized that I am in that time of the month where hormones keep me awake (and by the way, now it happens 2x a month). I usually try sleeping pills (Unisom).

    What I like about this list is that there are a few new ideas for me. The HIIT (I do it occasionally, but not often). Deep breathing / meditation. No lights (our computer is in our bedroom and the “on button” is really bright. I actually started draping a headband over it.)

    Also limiting food and beverage. I made the mistake of drinking too much water one day last week and was up FIVE TIMES.

    (and from one of the earlier comments – I’ve tried essential oils…don’t work for me).

  14. Hi Lisa!

    I’ve had sleep issues in the past, too. One thing that was not mentioned here was your “sleep space.” My doctor said that your bed should be used for sleep and sex – that’s it. Eating, watching TV, talking on the phone, etc, makes your brain forget that beds are resting places.

    Loved your article, love your site!

  15. I cannot recommend Dr. Daley highly enough! So glad you found her, Lisa. I, too, was an insomniac with some anxieties, and following her tips has changed my life. Thank you for sharing this with the world! Now I can point friends to your blog post, when they ask me how I finally started sleeping peacefully.

  16. This is a great article. I work with patients who struggle with tinnitus (noises in the ears or head) and they frequently have sleep issues. I recommend most of these things here. One thing I’d change re top #2, it does not have to be white noise. As a matter of fact most people prefer nature sounds over white noise. Or even pink or brown noise over white noise. (So ocean waves may be better for many people). Also instead of a pricey noise machine use an app on your phone or tablet. A favorite with my patients (and myself) is “relax melodies” and you can mix sounds together to personalize it. Or search nature sounds, sounds for sleep, relaxing sounds, etc.

  17. THANK YOU for sharing this info! I’ve been struggling with insomnia and I look forward to trying the suggestions you have listed. I agree with your Dr. about sleeping meds and supplements. They can make insomnia worse! Continued success on your new sleeping routine.

  18. There can be many reasons for poor sleep. Thyroid, vitamin deficiency, other meds you are one, stress, environmental issues, etc. Even if you sleep 7 hours you may not get REM sleep, which you need to restore your body. You may have sleep apnea but be careful they don’t miss diagnose you. You may wake up 8 times over 8 hours of sleep, this is not sleep apnea. But if those 8 times are during REM sleep them this is something to look at. I suffer from headaches, migraines (they are different), Food, environmental and chemical intolerance. A Naturopath Doctor saved my life from going out of control by changing my food to whole foods and vitamins. We were working on my sleep when I moved out of state. I sleep 8 hours a night but I do not get REM sleep. I am working on better health every day. It takes time, lots of reading and believing in NEW THINGS. The very first Dr. I went to with all my sundry of symptoms gave me the name of two shrinks. I knew it wasn’t all in my head. I was eating the wrong Fuel for my body and the 2nd Doctor help me to determine what my triggers were. Good luck to you all on your journey, you aren’t alone.

  19. All the doctor’s suggestions are excellent! However, someone mentioned doTERRA. Lavender Essential Oil is terrific. It has helped many people I know. It helped reset my internal clock. I was waking up at 2:30 am every night wondering what was causing this upsetting body habit. The first night I tried the Lavender, I slept through the night!!!! There is more information on a Facebook Page. Need Essential Oils

  20. I find this blog so helpful as a new mom, but this post in particular really struck me – I already try to do some of these things, especially the strict bedtime/waketime schedule, but it’s so hard with a baby who still wakes up in the middle of the night! It’s inspiring to read about all you accomplished after having your kids. I’m really struggling right now to find a way to get anything done with one baby; guess I’ll have to dig around on here a little more in an attempt to borrow your secrets!

  21. #9 changed my life! I heard this from someone years ago when I would wake up at 3 am and my mind would spin with all of the things I had to do that week. I started writing a list every night after dinner and somehow that to do list looked so much smaller on paper. Love your blog!

  22. First of all, I love your blog. It was recommended to me by my cousin when I started to recognize how horrible processed foods are. Your blog helped me start thinking about shopping, cooking and eating differently. I now teach others about these same concepts and refer them to your blog as well. I have been a registered nurse for 15 years, but left that career to educate and empower people about how essential oils can transform the way we take care of ourselves and our families. My husband and his entire family has suffered from insomnia their entire lives. So when we were introduced to essential oils (we use doTERRA), he felt that if there was an oil that could help with his sleep he would be a believer. Well, they did help to the point that now he falls asleep within 10 minutes and doesn’t even rely on the oils every night anymore (it took him about 2 weeks to notice a difference and a month to start falling asleep on his own though the time frame is different for everybody). It’s as if the oils helped his body reset to the balance it wanted to be in. If you or anyone else on this thread is interested enough to try them, I mail free samples all the time. I just love how these natural medications help our bodies heal themselves and the world needs to know about them!

  23. Lisa, what a really great article! I have suffered with insomnia since the birth of my second child (maybe even prior to that–during pregnancy), so I will definitely be trying some of your doctor’s tips on getting a better night’s rest. I’m currently nursing a 7 month old baby and get up 2-3 times still at night. I realize until my baby sleeps through the night, I will be much more rested but do you happen to know if those tips still apply to someone in my situation? Is it possible to feel somewhat rested with my baby’s current feeding schedule? I wonder what your doctor would say about napping during the day. Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!!

  24. Thank you for posting such a valuable insight into the whole health picture….sleep! I am a holistic health coach (IIN) graduate and my husband is a local dentist in town (Dr. Forrest Norman III) Thru our sons needs (started with chronic ear infections which led to mild yet therapy needed for speech) has all resulted in an area called myofunctional therapy–I’d encourage you to check out the book “Close Your Mouth”. Very user-friendly info that has changed our sleep in amazing ways!

  25. I don’t know if anybody else mentioned this but a major cause of insomnia can be a malfunctioning thyroid. Even if your thyroid tests fine by regular standards, it may still be off. A naturopathic doctor can test for this by ordering tests for additional hormones that conventional doctors don’t check. This completely solved my sleep and anxiety issues which started after having my second child at age 36. The goal is then to treat the thyroid naturally and encourage it to heal. I have never been on thyroid medication but my sleep is great and my anxiety gone. Thyroid malfunction can happen from pregnancy, menopause, illness, and stress. Just my two cents. :)

  26. My insomnia had a great deal to do with some medication I was taking. Within days of stopping it I was sleeping 10 hours a night in deep deep sleep. A few weeks later I was back at a fairly normal 7 to 9 hours a night. I started dreaming again and have a new found energy that still amazes me. I still have those nights but they don’t elicit panic anymore. I need to have night lights though since I am older and live by myself and have run into my share of objects at night. I keep them as low as possible. Great article and absolutely wonderful doctor!

  27. I literally just discovered yesterday that my daily kombucha habit, which I love, might be adding to my insomnia! I didn’t realize that kombucha is a diuretic and was drinking as the opposite- a hydrating drink. Therefore, I was not drinking any water in the am’s when I had my kombucha. I was dehydrating myself. Dehydration causes anxiety – one of the first symptoms – which can result in sleeplessness from the anxiety. I too have too much going on and can’t shut my brain off at night! I’m hoping I discovered the cause! Oh and another thing- if you’re taking turmeric, take it in the morning! It’s a stimulant!

  28. Thank you for your blog. I hit full blown menopause 16 years ago and have struggles with insomnia ever since. I was wondering…since I have hip issues and can’t run, do you have any suggestions for how I can achieve the exercise with intervals?

      1. If you want to add interval training/low impact exercise to your daily regimen, you may want to check out suzannebowenfitness.com. She offers over 200 workouts (more added all the time) online; you can work out in your own home (with little to no equipment) whenever is convenient for you. You simply need an Internet connection and ten bucks per month. You can even try it for free. I did, and I’m hooked. :)