New parents find one of their greatest challenges to be “sleep training” the tiny being or beings for whom they are now responsible. These itty bitty people, who can look so adorable, are capable of shrieking with amazing volume when they are hungry, have a dirty diaper, and when they are not interested in being left alone in their cribs to sleep. Babies do not automatically know how to sleep; after all for so many months in the womb they were in the dark, it was warm, and they could play, do somersaults, kick a little. The dark was a great place to be, and there was steady noise, the thump, thump, thump of mom’s heart, which had a great beat so they could dance to it. They didn’t have to work to eat, food just flowed to them. Now the baby has to work to eat, and learn to be awake in the light and sleep in the dark.
We all went through it, we all had to learn how to go to sleep. Some of us were put in a car seat and taken for a ride until we fell asleep. Others were left to cry it out. Some slept in mom and dad’s bed. Still others were patted but not picked up when we cried. It’s hard on both parents and the child, but eventually most of us learned how to go to sleep when we were children.
Now that we’re adults, going to bed and finding rest can be as challenging as when we were infants. The “coulda, woulda, shoulda” thoughts whirl through our minds as we rehash our day. Or the blue electronic light from our phone or the TV robs us of our sleep because we want to numb out from our day with the company of our virtual friends. We check our phones even as we toss and turn in case we miss anything. Worries plague us, trying to get more done, just a little more accomplished nags us, or we can’t get comfortable because we have chronic pain, disease, or illness that means we’re in bed but we can’t get real rest.
For a while I had chronic insomnia, sometimes sleeping less than 2 hours per night. My pulmonologist, who is also a sleep specialist, told me an interesting fact about the blue electronic light from my phone.I was using my phone to watch YouTube videos to keep me company during the long nights and I hoped they would also lull me to sleep. The blue light on my phone’s screen is the same light he uses to treat narcoleptics and those whose sleep patterns are disrupted by shift work. Since those sufferers are prone to falling asleep at bad times, they use the blue light to keep them awake. So I was basically making my own insomnia worse instead of better.
There are healthier ways of finding rest than YouTube at 4 am. Centering prayer, repeating one phrase over and over to center yourself in God and banish the thoughts that are running like hamsters in your brain, is useful. I often use either “Lord, have mercy” or “The Lord is my shepherd”. If you’re not a pray-er, try breathing deeply and counting your breaths, promising yourself that if you’re still awake after 100 deep breaths you’ll get up rather than tossing and turning. Count things for which you’re grateful. Find a podcast of a guided meditation. YouTube does have nature noises and soothing music. Talk to your doctor if you have chronic insomnia: I did, and got good help.
For people grieving the death of their partner, I know some widows and widowers have found comfort in switching to the other side of the bed so they don’t feel their partner’s absence so acutely. For those of us who are inspired right after our heads hit the pillow, make a list of what you need to do right before you turn out the light.
Our culture is suffering from a chronic lack of sleep. People routinely stay up until 1 or 2 am, as late-night TV is now the norm not the exception in our nation’s television viewing habits. Instead of the 7 – 8 hours of rest most of us require, many people now get only 5 – 6 hours per night. Sleep deprivation can have a profound effect on us. See this chart below from Johns Hopkins Medicine. No wonder our country is so full of grumpy people, we’re tired!
You can find more advice online or from your doctor on how to get sleep.
Now as to finding rest, that is differing than getting to sleep.
Rest comes from being comfortable, from finding comfort in the support of friends, love from your family, or trusting in the grace of God. Rest comes from knowing your limits, and making peace with them so you don’t need to control something that is beyond your scope or outside your job description as a human being.
My spiritual director, Bonnie Stafford, told me the following story from her seminary days at a Roman Catholic seminary (she is Presbyterian). During the days of Vatican II and all the reforms being implemented throughout the Roman Catholic Church, there was a lot of turmoil and many demands on Pope John XVI. He would say at the end of another long day, “This your church, God. I’m going to bed!”
That may help your rest. Pray, “This is your family, God. This is your world. This is a country you love. This is your church. I belong to you, so I am your servant. I’m going to bed! Trust God, rest in God’s love.
And here’s a prayer I love that I learned at the Iona Community in Scotland, and have since found in the Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer published by Westminster John Knox Press:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or [wake or]weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen
Grace , peace, and rest to you!