Middleagedmum.com: my middle aged sleep crisis

woman insomnia sleeping disorder with alarm clock in bedIf you don’t read the Telegraph or follow us on Twitter you will have missed this feature I wrote on the Middle Aged Sleep Crisis. To be honest most of my sleep problems are currently related to the menopause, but the Telegraph wanted the feature to appeal to both men and women, so didn’t want to focus on that. Waking up several times in the night drenched in sweat eventually lead me to go to the doctors weeping and I ended up going down the HRT route. Anyone that know me, knows I don’t even take headache tablets, so this was a big decision, so I opted for the weakest dose, which has helped a bit, but I wouldn’t say it was miracle cure.

Since the feature I have had several offers of natural sleep remedies, food supplements etc, which I am hoping try and will post about soon. In the meantime, heres the feature and let us know about your sleep problems/solutions, as we women need to stick together on this one…..

If you had happened to glance through the window of my London home around 4.30am last night, this is what you would have seen: a tousled-haired woman at her laptop, tapping out a presentation.  By 7am I’d walked the dog, done some admin and scoured the kitchen surfaces. It’s not an untypical night’s ‘sleep’: over the years I’ve become entirely accustomed to being wide awake as the clock tolls first 3am, then four then five –  by which point I give up trying to hug my pillow and get up to do something useful instead. Sometimes I am lucky to get two hours sleep overall, and on the rare occasion that I get five uninterrupted hours I feel so exhilarated, it feels like I have been born again.

Somehow I manage to function, although apparently, if I listed to the latest advice, it won’t be long before I keel into an early grave.  This week we learnt that a campaign is to be launched by the government to encourage middle-aged people to get more sleep if we want to boost our health and avoid serious illness (obesity, heart disease and diabetes). To avoid premature death that those conditions bring, we will be told that we need to value our sleep more and aim for  seven to eight hours every night.

Eight hours! Just writing that figure down makes me want to throw every clock in the house out the window. The last time I got that many hours shut-eye John Major was prime minister.  Back then, I was a normal sleeper – by which I mean I didn’t think about it. I went to bed, and many blissful hours later I would wake up and get on with my day.

That all changed when I had my children Jack, now 21 and nineteen-year-old Flo. As any parent knows, small children and uninterrupted sleep aren’t natural bedfellows and as I had them close together several years passed during which broken nights were the norm as I dealt with teething, night terrors and general toddler neediness.  It was exhausting, but I put it down to a phase that would pass once they were both out of nappies. It didn’t. Instead it seemed to set a new pattern, albeit one where the root cause changed: where once the disruption to my sleep was physical, it turned into something more psychological. I would find myself jerking awake at 3 in the morning, my brain whirring with work/motherhood-related anxieties which I scrolled through to the panic-inducing backdrop of a ticking clock as my husband slumbered peacefully beside me.  Attempts to get back to sleep were futile: the more I obsessed over the diminishing hours of sleep available before the alarm went off, the less I was able to surrender to them.

Thus began the initial, ongoing and largely futile attempts to remedy my nocturnal problems. I started with over the counter remedies, before finally throwing myself on the mercy of the doctor. He in turn could only offer sleeping tablets, a solution I daren’t – and still dare not – embrace, fearing them a slippery slope. I listened to all the advice, cut down on caffeine and alcohol, and tried to exercise more. I scoured the internet, looking for tips, purchasing lavender spray and sleep promising orthopaedic pillows.

None of it really made a blind bit of difference, and nor did trying to vary my sleep routine. Whatever time I went bed – early, late – I either didn’t get to sleep at all or woke up at 2 or 3am, unable to calm my racing brain.

Throughout, I kept putting my faith in the vague notion that the passing of time would somehow, ultimately, bring with it the gift of sleep. Instead, if anything, my insomnia has got worse and now I’m in the full throttle of my ‘mid-life’ sleep crisis. As has been recognized by Public Health England the over 40’s are the group that is most sleep deprived due to our greater occupational and family demands. I’m fuelled by the worry of caring for teenagers with their erratic, late hours and infuriating inability to respond to texts enquiring after their whereabouts. Travelling is also the enemy, with its potent mix of strange bedrooms and jetlag: once, on a work trip to New York, I didn’t sleep for three days straight and by dawn was wandering the streets like a hollow-eyed loon looking for somewhere to get a caffeine shot.

That was extreme, but there are plenty of times when my lack of sleep has left me so exhausted that I could happily lie down in the middle of an A road to catch a few winks. Mid afternoon, meanwhile, often sees me surrendering to the comforting embrace of a quick-fix chocolate bar to stave off the desire to slump my head on my laptop – one of the reasons, I suspect, that long-term insomnia is linked to an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. I do my best, but it’s hard to be healthy when you are so tired you can barely switch the kettle on.

On really bad days I fantasise about punching people  – including my husband, who has slept like a log for pretty much all of our thirty year relationship –  who airily declare how ‘tired’ they are when in fact they were out for the count from midnight until 7am.  Ultimately, however, I’ve learned that panicking about my sleepless state is pretty much pointless. Far better to get up and do something useful instead of lying there being taunted by your digital clock face. It’s one reason will often find me cleaning my kitchen cupboards as the dawn chorus unfolds.

Still, while age has made me more sanguine about my plight, it really doesn’t help being told how important it is to get a good night’s sleep.  Sleep shaming, well it just becomes just another thing to worry about – any, goodness knows, how many of us need that?



  • carol says:

    pranayama works for me.

  • Rohini Wahi says:

    Just seen my future layed out in your words Jane…!

    Be interesting to look at the history of sleep and which generations got more and why…

  • sarah says:

    I have had trouble getting to sleep all my life so I really sympathise. I find holidays particularly hard, unfamiliar beds, noise ect. In desperation, I use old fashioned antihistamine as a sleep aid and long walks. I also find stretching, then relaxing helpful, particularly my ‘restless’ legs. There is a certain sort of over tiredness that keeps me wakeful, utterly baffling to my husband.

  • sue evans says:

    Despite investing in the downiest pillows and toppers, I have the same problem as Jane. Awake as regular as clockwork in the wee small hours — in fact I could set my watch by it. Usually 2.56am …….. Then I am either writing prolific pieces in my head, inventing worse-case scenarios about everything from the grandkids to the itch on my arm morphing into skin cancer, or my brain is darting about like a twitchy budgie. Like Jane I don’t take sleeping pills so have no idea what the answer is. One thing I do know, I might never get a full night’s sleep but as soon as I am a passenger in a moving vehicle I am out like a light. Maybe a bed on wheels is the answer for me …….

  • Ellen says:

    Thanks for writing about this. I am up at 4 and all my anxieties about everything in my life are there to torment me! I know some of this is menopause – maybe all of it is menopause – but still it is awful to lie there and try to sleep and then become anxious about not sleeping enough. The anxiety issue with menopause is dreadful and a sure way to fuel insomnia.
    I get up to read for a bit and then can sometimes get back to sleep, but some days I am just up. I hate taking pills. I have tried meditating, praying, breathing exercises and nothing seems to work. And when my husband wakes up and tells me he thinks he didn’t get enough sleep, when I was wide awake listening to him snore, it makes me crazy!

  • Merrit says:

    I found a psychologist called Dr Val Walters very helpful. She taught me relaxation and visualisation techniques.

  • sally says:

    Great article. I could have written the very same things, (except obvs not as well)

    in desperation recently I did try an online sleep training course called Sleepio,,,if I tell you it’s hosted by a cartoon Scotsman and his dog you’ll really think I’m crackers and yes, I did pay a small fee to be part of this online community BUT it was useful and had I had the energy, tenacity to stick with the 6 week course I think it really could’ve helped.
    The concept and overall approach is firmly based on academic research – the programme itself begins easily enough but gets tough. The daily diary you’re prompted to fill in is fascinating and can really highlight your personal do’s and don’ts for a half decent night.
    I chickened out when you were required to get out of bed and remove yourself to another room as soon as you woke..what!…I hadn’t the energy. Faggedit.
    Guess I now understand the meaning of “rest in peace’ on gravestones…if only :D

  • Ruth says:

    Jane, It must be distressing when sleep doesn’t come naturally. I haven’t researched the effects of jet lag, but we are currently trying a technique to reset my daughters ‘clock’ after a trip to Canada, suggested by a naturopath. I can’t say if it is successful yet!!

  • Helen says:

    Thsnks for reblogging such a good article!

    I have to say that I’ve found meditation helps still that restless mind…. But you have to practice during the day, regularly…

    Rohini: my colleague, Dr Sasha Handley, is a historian of sleep and gives sleep tours for the National Trust. Our attitudes to and practices of getting ‘a good nights sleep’ are very historically and culturally specific. Fascinating stuff. Not that it helps when you are wide awake in the small hours! Helen x

  • Andrea says:

    No amount of fancy eye creams and makeup will ever eliminate my dark circles and eye bags from the years of rubbish sleep!

  • Sarah says:

    Along with the feeling that menopause is the last taboo, and is way overdue for for ‘outing’, I think HRT needs talking about because otherwise we only have our doctors and medical forums for reference. I’m currently on low dose reasonably bio-identical HRT and finding it a godsend. It wasn’t an easy decision because advice is contradictory and I find I’m quite wary who I tell – and I bet I’m not the only one which also means we aren’t having honest discussions. I’m beginning to see why people come off their anti-depressants, it’s not only that (with luck) you feel better and therefore don’t feel the need for them any more but that slight suck in off breath you get from some people when you mention your medication. Can I offer some advice to women in general – when your friend tells you something (quite often because you have asked) she might appreciate your interest but she won’t appreciate your unsolicited advice or judgement. Chances are she will have made a considered decision about taking whatever it is she is taking (being an intelligent woman who is capable of using a search engine and her brain!) and has quite enough reservations about her decision without your twopenorth.
    But rant apart, seriously, we need to talk about this stuff.

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