Photo: BBC

I have problems sleeping. Do you? Asks Elaine Kingett. These days it seems we all have problems sleeping. These days, they even offer ‘satisfaction guaranteed or your money back’ 100-day trials on new-gen mattresses, (but who on earth could be bothered to send one back?). When my children were babies, I would shoot daggers at normal folk, unencumbered by buggies. Did they not realise how lucky they were to sleep all night? How dare they look so damn clean and AWAKE?

Now my three kids are all adults but I still don’t sleep. Now my bedtime ritual is a toss-up between treating myself to half a hardcore Zoplicone, downing an extra couple of glasses of red with dinner, necking melatonin that I brought back from Spain where it’s legal, drinking ineffective but delicious Sleepytime tea or (the new kid on the block that my doctor recommended) Phenergan – a drug I only previously knew as the 80s alternative to Dickensian gin for mothers of fractious children.

Come the time for sleepy bye-byes and I cannot relax. It’s six years since my last long-term relationship and I’m still suffering ‘Empty Bed Syndrome’. That dozy moment when you reach out across the Egyptian cotton and they are not there. Dog used to fill that gap but dog has gone. Many’s the time I have squeezed between my super king and the fitted wardrobe and thought, ‘I would have SO much more space if I got a single bed.’ But that would be admitting defeat. And I’d probably fall out.

At the start of Kent Haruf’s novel, Our Souls At Night (recently made into a film starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford), the widowed protagonist goes round to her widower neighbour early one evening and asks if she can sleep with him. Not for sex but so she can fall asleep next to him in bed, holding his hand. That’s what I’m talking about.

A dear friend gave me a homemade, heart-shaped pillow covered in crazy African-print cotton, to cuddle after my breast cancer surgery; that helps. And the knowledge that in earlier times, before the advent of electricity, it was standard practice to sleep in short cycles, get up, have a chat, read a bit and go back to bed. That helps, too. My newly acquired Fitbit might encourage me to move around during the day but it’s a harridan when it announces my previous night’s sleep pattern, ‘Oh dear, dear, dear…didn’t do very well again last night, did we? Just look at those ups and downs.’ Shut it, techno.

So yes, I’ve gone back to Internet dating to search for a soulmate but, in the meantime, bring back candy-striped flannelette sheets, pure wool blankets edged in satin and Paisley patterned eiderdowns – there’s something so wonderfully comforting about being tucked up tight, with that warm weight on top on top of me!

Elaine Kingett runs creative writing holidays in Spain and Wales and workshops in London; for more information check out Write It Down.

41 thoughts on “Problems sleeping?

  1. This is downright atrocious to even mention, and I do apologize, but I have found drinking alcohol is a huge culprit in me waking (and staying) up in the wer hours. When I was young it knocked me out all night. Nowadays if it’s more tban one drink I can kiss a good night’s aleep goodbye. So sad!

  2. Indeed – in Finland babies wee feet are always in cosy socks for bedtime and parents get more sleep – so they say.
    I tell this to all new mothers.

  3. What about herbal remedies in the quest for sleep ? Valerin … Keep a dark room ….. Turn off computers 2 hours before trying to sleep . EMF interfering with our sleep . Somethings to consider…….

    1. OOH, I agree on the water bottle. I don’t like the room to be too warm, but I do love a bottle that I can pace either at my feet or my torso. and then shove it away when it’s cool. Poor Elaine. I hope she finds a solution. Sad to think the only answer is another human.

      1. Yes, absolutely a hot water bottle snuggled into your back. And socks. I also do a sudoku puzzle in bed while drinking a small mug of hot water, which seems to help me prepare for sleep. Goodness, when did I get so boring!

  4. Hope you get some non medicated help with this. I’m lucky to be a good sleeper. What helps ? Being physically tired having exercised earlier in day; staying up late to be very tired; being warm : hot water bottle or electric blanket, cashmere bed socks; not having anything electronic turned on late at night. Phone off and nowhere near my head, no television in bedroom, no buzzing gadgets, old fashioned alarm clock away from bedside across room. I don’t have any caffeine after tea time, little alcohol and not loads of sugar in evening And finally reading magazines in bed. Especially looking at pictures of clothes before I go to sleep. Clears the mind wonderfully of thoughts rushing around. Good luck.

  5. … yes I treated myself to cashmere socks several years ago, after my bed became empty. I was also given a tip by an esoteric masseuse to place the flat of my hand below my tummy button – it’s a wonderful, gentle sensation and helps me enormously in drifting off.

  6. I find that alcohol, even 1 glass of wine, disturbs my sleep. Prescription sleep aids are addictive, so don’t go there. I now drink decaf after 3:00 in the afternoon. I do enjoy my cuppa! I take melatonin before bed, cool room, warm duvet to snuggle into for that extra weight and warmth. My doctor has been encouraging me to start meditating before bed. It’s really not my thing but one day I may try.
    The worse feeling is to be awake while everyone is off slumbering. I believe it is an affliction that many older women suffer from but that is of no consolation.

  7. I hate to say this because I have trouble sleeping as well but drugs and alcohol are not the way to go and very bad for your brain health. Wine should be limited to one glass early in the evening (wah!) to avoid interfering with sleep…read “Why we sleep” for some ideas on getting better rest. It’s still a struggle for me but getting better.

  8. Great article, so many women in midlife seem to suffer insomnia. For what it’s worth here are my tips. Exercise, daily meditation/mindfulness (YouTube – Honest Guys are great), magnesium supplements (it also helps anxiety which seems to come with the menopause territory). If I stop any of them for more than a few days I notice straight away.

  9. Oh dear, my sleeping habits have got far worse with age,I go to sleep very quickly then am more often than not awake around 2 to 3 then back to sleep just before I need to wake up. Frustrating to say the least and I am certainly not like my sister who gets up and does the ironing. Horror. Nothing really works and like a lot of us feel sleeping pills are just not acceptable. I guess as long as one can still function during the day properly there is nothing to worry about, hopefully.

  10. If you are in a place where there is legal medical marijuana, there are lots of choices to help with sleep. Look for low THC and high CBD — you get the benefits of cannabis without the feeling of being high. My favorite is Tranquili-Tea at It’s delicious tea to begin with, and the sleep effects are amazing.

  11. Hi Alyson. Definitely feel your insomnia pain. I take Nytol 50g. Not the herbal, proper drugs!! Usually do the trick. May test out the sock theory! Best, Steph

  12. If I find myself tossing and turning… I consciously accept that for whatever reason I am not falling asleep and I decide to just enjoy the wonderful feeling of being in my snug comfy bed and having the luxury of relaxation..especially if I have felt tired during the day…the pressure to actually fall asleep disappears…and I fall asleep 🙂

  13. Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams Hardcover – 28 Sep 2017
    by Matthew Walker (Author). You can hear him on radio 4 and there is some stuff on YouTube. Very up to date and helpful science based. I am nothing to do with him or the publishers, just love science!

  14. Per Lorna: ‘have you tried This Works Deep Sleep Spray? worked for me’
    I have and it works; I keep a ‘dedicated’ wash cloth next to the bottle and lightly spray and then deeply inhale a few times. Works like magic. Also, your flat hand just under the belly button works like a charm. (per Georgina)
    Also, read ‘The Relaxation Response’ by Herbert Benson a Harvard Physician. Written in 1975 it is a secular version of Transcendental Meditation. Simple, straight-forward and very useful in today’s world. Sweet Dreams.

  15. To fall asleep, I have to be completely comfortable with no pain – which is tricky as I often have sacro-iliac joint pain in my lower back. I find a hot water bottle (on the pain) helps to dissipate it and getting enough exercise during the day helps me to sleep at night. Strangely, a dose of paracetamol seems to still my brain within about 30 minutes if it is too busy and stopping me sleeping. It is very helpful to keep regular hours too – ie get up in the morning at the same time each morning – and go the bed at the same time too. And as others have said, don’t use electronic screens before bed. If all else fails, and I have not fallen asleep after 2 hours, I get up and do something that is in my ‘must do pile’. Sometimes I don’t get tired again until 4am and head to bed then! I’m pretty shattered the next day, but at least I’ve got less on the must do list 🙂

  16. Give up caffeinated coffee (best) or limit to no more than one a day before noon or confine to non-working days. No alcohol – chemically, it will disrupt sleep. Socks. Hot water bottle at feet. Cool room, warm bed. Magnesium. Ensuring the room is completely dark (blackout blinds or blackout curtain liners). No telly, internet, phones an hour before bed. If ruminating, write down the thoughts in a narrative (not a list) to a max of 3 pages of A4. Being physically exhausted e.g. from a long all day walk. Ear plugs. Separate rooms if snoring is involved.

  17. Have you tried the 4-7-8 breathing technique? To relieve your anxious mind, sit up in bed with your back straight, and press the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth right behind your front teeth. Maintaining that position, close your mouth and inhale through your nose for four counts, hold that breath for seven counts, and then exhale through your mouth around your tongue for eight counts. Repeat this pattern until you have completed four full breaths. I have had some success using this technique; drugs are an absolute no-no for me, and alcohol, while helping me fall asleep, always wakes me in the early hours. Best of luck!

  18. I too am a big fan of This Works pillow spray – and if you don’t want to spray it on the pillows, they also do a bath soak and a hair elixir – so great sleep and great hair from one product! I love Aromatherapy Associates Deep Relax bath oil too, find myself dropping off in the bath when I use this. Other tips: I agree (regretfully) with no alcohol, no digital in the hour before bed, a regular bedtime (10.30 works for me), window open a little, plus I take a Panadol to ease my aching back and hips into sleep. I’d also add that finding a fairly firm, supportive pillow has been a life changer for me as my head and neck get proper support and that eases the tension out of my shoulders. Good luck Elaine – I hope at least some of these tips work for you.

  19. Recipe for sleep:
    SIMBA matress- really did help.
    Feather pillow and duvet, nice and heavy. (Interestingly you can buy a weighted dog coat that reduces anxiety in dogs home alone so heavy weight does seem to help)
    Post Menopause I sleep better naked.
    No coffee after lunch.
    Exercise does help-I used to walk off the pain of the worst elements of a very PTSD break up now I love group classes at the gym and have finally embraced Yoga (but this needs to be the right teacher)
    Counseling-not cheap but again with the right teacher… I finally stopped judging myself and began to like myself.
    I too learned to embrace the moments of wakefulness with a read and a drink and once I stopped dreading the 3am wake up it seemed to vanish.
    Finally I have moved back in with my children and I do wonder that by living with those we worry about most is a release from stress too.

  20. Podcast: Sleep With Me It’s a man with a boring voice telling boring stories in a boring way
    Wish Gardens product Simply Sleep herbal and it helps
    Hot water bottle between your shoulder blades
    Around 6 pm make a list of all the things you have to do the next day and then put it away
    Don’t look at any electronic device from 7 pm. on and turn off your television an hour or so before bed
    Right when you get into bed write down three good/positive things that happened to you that day (this sounds cheesy, but it puts your brain in a positive “mood” and it’s amazing how well it works)

  21. I used to sleep like a (contented) baby, but that changed with the menopause. I don’t have a problem falling asleep but I never have more than 3 hours uninterrupted sleep. Night sweats kept me awake. I thought it would get better but it didn’t ; and now I am on anastrozole, which I have to take for the next 5 years and if, anything, it got worse. Nice duvets and bed socks are a thing of the past. Herbal teas don’t work; as for pillow sprays, I have tried the Neal’s Yard; does not work for me, and I don’t suppose the ‘This works’ one will be different, as the ingredients are the same, aren’t they? Sleeping tablets are the only thing I have not tried because I don’t want to become addicted. I have started drinking Horlicks before bed; I haven’t noticed a big difference but it is quite nice…I wonder anyone has experienced sleep problems due to anastrozole?

  22. Ah a subject close to my heart! After much albeit unscientific research I’ve come to this conclusion. My emotions are the key to sleep. That plus a little pain relief so I don’t wake up from that.
    When I’m upset or anxious or worried about anything, it doesn’t matter what I take. I simply lay there hour after hour tossing and turning. Short of a wrecking ball, nothing will allow me to conk out.

    Recently I was traveling and spending nights in hotels etc and slept fine, but then all of a sudden poof my ability to sleep was gone. I’m putting it down to anxiety. I refuse to treat it with drugs or wine, although that’s tempting, but as many of you have noted ultimately those don’t work and even can cause worse sleep.

    What I try to do is calm myself by realizing it’s not forever (even though those sleepless nights feel like an eternity) and I can change my thoughts by repeating a calming mantra. Still working on it!

  23. I had a similar problem, and have started taking 5-HTP on the advice of a friend. Had tried all the usual remedies, including pillow spray, screen detox in the evening, etc. A month on and it’s working, I’m sleeping through for a good 7 hours a night, which hasn’t happened for months. I also go out for a walk for an hour in the middle of the day to make sure I get some sunlight; I don’t think sitting in front of a computer all day has helped either.

  24. I so agree with the sage advice above, I exercise, practice yoga, meditate, write down what needs to be done and lock it in the vault for the night!. Am I looking for physical comfort? Cuddling, a soft quilt, a dark and quiet room.
    If I have what I call “spinning thoughts” I take white chestnut flower essence, and if that doesn’t do it I memorize a favorite poem. This calms my mind and I let go into sleep.

  25. Great advice. My sleep fluctuates depending on what’s been around for me during the day/week. My head is usually buzzing with negativity etc.
    Cool room and hot water bottle have helped previously but will try the pillow spray and cashmere socks now

  26. This is a wonderful article and thread and it is very interesting and helpful to read all these comments and to know that I am not alone! I can also recommend an app called “my sleep button”. It reads out a list of random words, and the idea is that you concentrate on the words, but because there is no logic behind them it helps you turn off the conscious/processing part of your brain. I have found this very helpful.

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