Top 10 tips for how caregivers can get a good night sleep

Caregiving is the most selfless duty anyone can take on, whether for a newborn or an aging parent. But this act of love can affect how the carer sleeps. Sleep deprivation can be caused by the stress and anxiety of caring for a loved one which can prey on the mind and prevent you from falling asleep. Or perhaps regular disruptions during the night from the care recipient can keep the carer up. Are you a caregiver who is suffering from sleep deprivation? You’re not alone. According to Being Patient, if you care for a loved one with dementia, you’re in good company, as 94% of dementia caregivers experience some form of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can include having difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or falling back to sleep after a disruption during the night. 

Did you know that sleep is a critical component of your overall health and well-being, just like diet and exercise? Research has shown that reaching the sleep cycle’s deepest level enables the glymphatic system (the brain’s waste management system) to cycle critical nutrients through the brain and remove waste. Therefore, sleep is not just a way to keep from feeling cranky. It is also crucial for your brain’s health! Sadly, research has also shown that this vital nightly routine is severely lacking in quality for those in the caregiving community who care for others. 

Let’s define our terms: Sleep deprivation vs. Insomnia

What’s the difference between sleep deprivation and insomnia? They both involve failing to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night for most adults. However, sleep deprivation results from not enough time allotted for rest because of choices (such as setting a regular bedtime or eating a big meal late) or obligations (such as taking care of a loved one). In contrast, insomniacs struggle to sleep even though they have the opportunity. 

Insomnia is a legitimate sleep disorder most likely caused by hyperarousal either mentally, emotionally, or physically. Being hyperaroused can lead to disruptions in the process of both falling asleep and staying asleep.

There are a host of other sleep disorders, including:

  • Sleep Apnea
  • Narcolepsy
  • Restless Legs Syndrome
  • REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

Health, wellbeing, and psychological symptoms of sleep deprivation

Being sleep deprived can cause many health, wellbeing, and psychological issues such as:

Wellbeing issues:

  • Trouble with memory
  • Irregular moods and irritability
  • Issues with thinking and concentrating, staying on task at work
  • Coordination and balance

Health issues:

  • Weakened immune system
  • Diabetes risk
  • High blood pressure
  • Weight gain
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Low sex drive

Psychological issues:

Here are our top 10 tips for how caregivers can get a good night sleep

  1. Keep regular sleep hours 

Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day will program your body to sleep better and more consistently. Remember, the deficit of sleep over time is the issue so try to set limits. If you have early morning responsibilities, see if it’s possible to either get help during the night hours or synchronize your sleep schedule with your senior.

  1. Create a restful sleeping environment 

Your bedroom should be a peaceful place for rest and sleep. Control the temperature, lighting, and noise levels. Do you tend to be woken up by noises at night, such as traffic noise or if lights come through the window? Finding some noise reducing and light blocking curtains may help so that your bedroom environment allows you to fall (and stay) asleep. 

  1. Make sure your bed is comfortable

It's difficult to get restful sleep on a mattress that's too soft or firm or a bed that's just not the right size for your body. Clean your bedding and sheets often, and remember to replace your pillow every so often. When you take care of others, it often becomes difficult to care for yourself, but a reset of your pillow or sheets every few years might be a treat worth getting yourself. Do you tend to sleep hot? It might be worth checking out specific cooling bedding that can help keep you sleeping comfortably. 

  1. Exercise regularly 

Moderate exercise regularly, such as swimming, running, walking, yoga, pilates, Crossfit, etc., can help relieve some of the tension built up over the day both out of your muscles and your mind. Be aware of the timing of your daily exercise and try to do more vigorous exercises earlier in the day when possible, such as running or the gym. If you do these types of activities too close to bedtime, it may keep you awake. 

  1. Cut down on caffeine 

Cut down on the caffeine intake from tea, coffee, energy drinks or sodas, even dark chocolate, especially in the evening. You should not have any coffee past mid-afternoon. Caffeine interferes with the process of falling asleep while also preventing the brain from entering deep sleep stages. Instead, have a warm, milky drink or herbal tea (try Lemon Balm or peppermint tea). Watch the sugar!

  1. Do not over-indulge 

Too much of anything can overwhelm the system, so keep in mind how much food or alcohol you’re consuming, especially later at night near bedtime (quit drinking or eating anything (except water) at least 2-4 hours before bed if possible). This behavior can interrupt sleep patterns. Alcohol may help you to fall asleep initially. Still, it will likely disrupt your sleep later on either by making you need to use the bathroom or the actual chemical disruption to your sleep hormone melatonin. 

  1. Do not smoke 

Nicotine stimulates the nervous system. As a result, people who smoke take longer to fall asleep, are more prone to waking up more frequently, and are likely to have disrupted sleep. 

  1. Try to relax before going to bed 

Have a warm bath, listen to quiet music or do some gentle yoga or a short walk around the block to relax your mind and body. Keep the exercise light so that you’re not pumping blood through your system and getting stimulated so close to bedtime.

  1. Write away your worries 

If you tend to lie in bed thinking about everything you have to do tomorrow, making lists for the appointments next week for your loved one you care for,  set aside time before bedtime to make plans for the next day, and write them out. The aim is to avoid thinking about these things when you're in bed, trying to sleep. This tactic will have the added benefit of alleviating some of the anxiety when you have too much to do and keep track of when it comes to your caregiving duties. 

  1. If you cannot sleep, get up 

If you cannot sleep, instead of brooding about it, try getting up and do something you find relaxing (but stay away from blue-lit screens!) until you feel sleepy again, then go back to bed. Reading a short magazine article or just one chapter of a book is a great option. Or perhaps listen to soothing music. Try not to move about too much, as the blood flow will likely make you more awake, but maybe keep a comfy chair nearby that you can sit in. This way, you won’t lie awake staring at the ceiling and giving into anxiety. 

Find caregiving help

All of this may be easier said than done if you are simply being called up in the middle of the night to assist your loved one for whom you are the caregiver. You may even find that you have a sense of guilt if you don’t get up quickly enough to help them, which then, in turn, can drive circular thought patterns once you do lie back down, preventing your brain from turning off and allowing you to fall back to sleep. If this is the case, it’s time to find help. Your consistent, comfortable, quality sleep is a critical part of your health and is essential to allowing you to be the best caregiver that you can be. If you need help, do you have friends or family members who might be able to take your place? Have you considered respite care? Finding help may be difficult, but if you have any chance at giving yourself a break, you deserve it. Here are some resources to help you.

Resources to help caregivers care for their loved ones overnight

Finding Care:

Paying For Care:

Emily Grove

June 23, 2021


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