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How to stop sleep deprivation

Carer helping an old man get dressed

Getting a good night’s sleep while taking care of a loved one can be difficult. You may find it hard to drop off, or struggle during the day if your assistance is needed multiple times in the middle of the night. But getting enough shut-eye is important not just so you can continue to help your loved one, but for your own mental health and happiness.

We spoke to Kathryn Pinkham, founder of The Insomnia Clinic, to find out what steps carers can take to prevent sleep deprivation.


If carers are short on sleep, how would you recommend regulating their sleep pattern?

Where possible, routine is the key to good sleep. Our body is like a clock – it works best when we follow the same routine each day as then we are more likely to get deeper, quality sleep. 

It is often tempting to go to bed early if you are tired or sleep deprived but this can make the problem worse as we end up going to bed when we are not truly sleepy and then laying in bed hour after hour feeling more and more stressed. 

I would advise carers to try to find time to wind down and retire a little later rather than rushing to bed. This way the body’s natural sleep drive will be higher so you are more likely to fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer.


Can a recharging nap be beneficial for a carer?

Naps can be a good way to recharge your batteries, however, timing is key. If you sleep too much during the day you are likely to struggle to sleep well at night-time as you will lose some of your ‘appetite’ for sleep. 

If you are struggling to get through the day, I would recommend a short nap to help refresh you that lasts no longer than 30 minutes. Nap no later than early afternoon as this should not interrupt sleep at bedtime but any later can leave you feeling groggy and struggling to sleep later on.


How can a carer effectively prepare when going to sleep?

A good routine is important and this doesn’t need to be lengthy or complicated. Your routine can be short or even as simple as cleaning your teeth and putting your pyjamas on, as long as it’s consistent and related to falling asleep.

The ideal sleep environment is different for everyone. As long as you find your bedroom relaxing, cool, and dark and it’s not full of work-related things or blue lights which will keep you awake then that should work for you.

A period of time before bed without screens where you watch TV or read a book as you start to slow down can act as a ‘cue’ for the mind that the day is coming to an end. Avoiding screen time before bed is important as the blue light emitted inhibits the development of melatonin - the sleepy hormone we need to drift off. Try to turn off all screens at least one hour before bed.


If a carer has been working for several hours on end, how would you recommend they wind down to rest effectively?

It’s important to empty your mind as much as you can after a busy day. Find activities that you find relaxing to do in the evening or spend some time writing down any worries you have that might keep you awake. 

Make time to feel happy and relaxed rather than just focusing on sleep. If you work hard all day, get home and eat then go straight to bed you are at risk of experiencing burnout. Even if it means going to bed half an hour later, factoring in time to do the things you enjoy will have a positive impact on your energy levels.


What sleeping tips would you give to a carer who has to wake up repeatedly in the middle of the night to help their loved one?

Even though you are waking at night, try to avoid sleeping for too long during the day. Otherwise, you may find that when you are woken in the night you struggle to get back off to sleep due to sleeping too much during the day.

Instead, keep to your normal routine and make sure you get up at a consistent time. This will ensure that your body clock stays in routine you can still drift back off despite disruptions.


What should a carer do if they find they can’t get to sleep?

Don't spend too long in bed! The first thing we do when we can't sleep is start going to bed earlier to try and increase our opportunity for sleeping. If you reduce the amount of time you spend in bed by going to bed later and getting up earlier, this will encourage your body’s natural sleep drive to kick in - you will crave more sleep, fall asleep faster and the quality of your rest will improve.


What should they do if they wake in the night and can’t get back to sleep?

If you can't get to sleep or wake up in the middle of night, get out of bed. The longer we lie in bed trying to fall back to sleep, the more frustrated we get. This, in turn, means we begin to subconsciously relate being in bed to feeling stressed and being awake rather than asleep. Leave the bedroom and do something relaxing like reading a book, then go back to bed when you are tired.


What impact can stress have on sleep, and how can a carer combat it?

Stress can have a huge impact as it can trigger poor sleep, but it can also keep it going as the more you try and fix your sleep the worse it gets. When we become anxious about sleep we end up staying in bed when we are wide awake, which leads to associating bed with stress and anxiety. 

If you are suffering from stress then CBT for insomnia can provide you with useful techniques to manage worries and challenge any underlying thoughts you may have. Mindfulness is also a great technique that teaches you to accept that you are worried and make the decision not to engage in the worries which are fueling your stress.

If you’re a carer for a loved one with incontinence and need some support, read more of our how to guides for practical tips and advice on topics like ensuring a safe home for your loved one and how to effectively change incontinence products.