I Hired a Sleep Coach—and It Actually Made a Big Difference

Tossing and turning? A new breed of consultant promises to help you get a better night's rest. One woman tried a sleep coach—and got surprising advice.

Photo: Frank P Wartenberg/Getty Images

Once upon a time, my bedroom fantasies involved George Clooney or Brad Pitt. These days my greatest desire is a good night’s sleep. I have tried everything from chamomile tea to OTC sleep aids, but I still struggle to eke out six (at most) restless hours. Too many days are clouded with exhaustion.

That’s why I decided to hire a personal sleep coach. Yes, it’s a thing: With the proliferation of life coaches and fitness coaches, it only makes sense that sleep would be next. Many sleep coaches take a holistic approach, examining lifestyle habits and home environment to create a personalized plan to get you through the night. (Anyone experiencing insomnia for more than three months should first see a doctor to rule out a medical issue.) Maybe a little one-on-one advice is all I need to halt the tossing and turning.

The coach is in

As I race about prepping for a home visit from Ingrid Prueher, I wonder if I should offer her a cup of coffee, or if that would instantly give me a black mark in her book. I have already filled out an online form about my medical history, diet, and lifestyle habits, how often I wake up during the night (a lot), and my psychological health (which would be way better if I slept more).

When Ingrid arrives at 11 a.m., she’s carrying performance sheets that regulate airflow, a pillow made with climate-control fabric and chosen for my body type and sleep position (both from Bedgear)—and a large coffee. "Caffeine is OK before 2 p.m.," she tells me, smiling. With her gentle manner and beautiful (rested!) eyes, she instantly puts me at ease.

Certified by the Family Sleep Institute, Ingrid started her career helping parents train their babies, but when she saw the toll exhaustion was taking on adults as well, she expanded her practice, treating restless sleepers from infants to the aged. (She charges $250 for a one-month package.)

"People talk about sleep a lot," says Ingrid, "but they don’t really want to do anything about changing their habits.” I assure her I’m ready to transform, and she lays out some guidelines: limit sugar, avoid heavy meals late at night, stop drinking caffeine after 2 p.m., skip strenuous exercise after 5 p.m., stick to one glass of wine with dinner, cut out screens within one hour of bedtime, and write a to-do list before bed (this will help me avoid obsessing over free-floating thoughts).

Bedroom inspection

When I lead Ingrid back to my bedroom, she lingers in the doorway. "How does this room make you feel?" she asks. "Calm," I answer confidently. She raises one eyebrow. "Really?" "Not calm?" I reply weakly.

"You have not created a haven for sleep and happiness," she proclaims. Her voice remains gentle, but there is a certainty that will brook no dispute. "You have family photographs all over the house—why don’t you have any here? You need to put a picture of your happy place where it will be the first thing you see every morning. The happier you are, the better you sleep."

The khaki walls and white rug pass muster (red would be too stimulating), but when she looks up at my ceiling fan, she is disappointed to spy dust on the blades. "It’s imperative to vacuum and clean often, especially if you have carpeting in your bedroom. Dust can lessen air quality, which is important for a good night’s sleep."

I assure her that I will up my cleaning game, keep the room between 68 and 72 degrees, sprinkle lavender essential oil in the diffuser she has brought, and run it continuously all night. (As with air conditioners, any stop-and-go can disrupt sleep. So much for “energy-saving mode.”)

My biggest sleep sins

Ingrid walks over to my night table and picks up the alarm clock that I purposely chose because it lights up only when pressed. An amateur move: Once it’s on, the numerals emit sleep-disrupting blue light. “Isn’t that better than checking my phone?" I protest. "You don’t need to know the time,” she says. "Set an alarm and put it on the other side of the room. If it hasn’t gone off, it’s not time to get up."

She turns to my bed and shakes her head at the number of pillows. "Most people sleep with two or three pillows, but when your head is propped up that much, it tends to flop forward, blocking airflow," she explains. "It can also put pressure on your shoulders and neck muscles." One good pillow is ideal, she says.

She is also not pleased that I sleep on my right side: "It’s best to sleep on your left side for easier blood flow throughout the night." Desperate to avoid attempting this change, I secretly vow to get a second, hopefully contradictory opinion as soon as Ingrid leaves. (Unfortunately, my second opinion concurs. "The blood that comes from the lower half of your body is brought to the heart by a large vein on the right side," says Neomi Shah, MD, a sleep expert at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Sleeping on your right may compress that vein.)

Ingrid saves the harshest critique for last: The large flat-screen TV across from my bed must go. "Your bed is for sex and sleep only," she says. (I mumble that just thinking about trying to get the cable company to come rewire my apartment will keep me up at night.)

The results

The first night, I turn on the diffuser and try the new pillow, which is soft, cool, and supportive—a game changer. I put a picture of my daughter on my night table, and it indeed makes me smile. But I still wake up numerous times.

Three nights in, I realize I need to get serious. I put my iPad and phone away an hour before bed, skip wine and sugar, read instead of watching TV—and fall asleep at 9 p.m. Best of all, I stay asleep for seven hours.

Now, after a few weeks, I am definitely sleeping better. I’ve gotten into the habit of leaving my windows open (for fresh air), sprinkling lavender oil beneath my one perfect pillow, and limiting my screen time.

There are things I cannot change: After a lifetime of sleeping on my right side, I cannot make the switch to the left; I have a 50-50 success rate of not checking the time if I wake up in the middle of the night. And I still haven’t moved the TV (sorry, Ingrid!). But I do sit on the chaise to watch it instead of lying in bed, and I throw a blanket over the set when I’m done. One day, I will replace it with a giant picture of my happy place, but for now, at least, I am halfway to my sleep haven.

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