A Sleep Coach Made a Big Difference in My Sleep

Tossing and turning? A sleep coach may help you get a better night's rest. Here's one individual's story.

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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 over-the-counter sleep aids, but I still struggle to get six (at most) restless hours of sleep. Too many days are clouded with exhaustion.

That's why I decided to hire a personal sleep coach. Yes, it's a thing. Many sleep coaches take a holistic approach, examining lifestyle habits and your home environment to create a personalized plan to get you through the night. Maybe a little one-on-one advice was all I needed to halt the tossing and turning.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, there are many medical reasons for poor sleep, such as sleep apnea. If poor sleep is something you struggle with, you may want to check in with your healthcare provider first to rule out medical reasons before hiring a coach.

The Coach Is In

As I raced about prepping for a home visit from my sleep coach, Ingrid Prueher, I wondered if I should provide coffee or if that would be a red flag. I had 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).

Ingrid arrived carrying performance bedsheets that regulate airflow, a pillow made with climate-control fabric and chosen for my body type and sleep position, and (I laughed) a large coffee. "Caffeine is OK before 2 p.m.," said Ingrid, smiling. I was quickly at ease.

Certified by the Family Sleep Institute, Ingrid began by helping parents train their babies but noticed the toll exhaustion was taking on adults as well.

"People talk about sleep a lot," said Ingrid, "but they don't really want to do anything about changing their habits." I said that I was ready to transform. She laid 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 (to avoid obsessing over free-floating thoughts).

Bedroom Inspection

Ingrid lingered in my bedroom doorway. "How does this room make you feel?"

"Calm," I answered confidently.

Ingrid raised one eyebrow. "Really?"

"Not calm?" I replied weakly.

"You have not created a haven for sleep and happiness. 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 passed muster (they were not too stimulating), but Ingrid spied dust on the ceiling fan. "It's imperative to vacuum and often clean, especially if you have carpeting in your bedroom. Dust can lessen air quality, which is important for a good night's sleep."

I assured Ingrid I would up my cleaning game, keep the room between 68 and 72 degrees, sprinkle lavender essential oil in the diffuser she had brought, and run it all night. (As with air conditioners, any stop-and-go can disrupt sleep. So much for "energy-saving mode.")

My Biggest Sleep Sins

Ingrid walked over to my night table and picked up the alarm clock 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 protested. "You don't need to know the time," said Ingrid. "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."

Ingrid turned to my bed and saw 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. It can also put pressure on your shoulders and neck muscles. One good pillow is ideal."

Ingrid was also not pleased that I slept 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 vowed to get a second opinion as soon as Ingrid left.

Unfortunately, my second opinion concurred. "The blood that comes from the lower half of your body is brought to the heart by a large vein on the right side," said 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 saved the harshest critique for last: The large flat-screen TV across from my bed must go. "Your bed is for sex and sleep only." (I mumbled that just thinking about trying to get the cable company to come to rewire my apartment would keep me up at night.)

The Results

The first night, I turned on the diffuser and tried the new pillow, which was soft, cool, and supportive—a game-changer. I put a picture of my daughter on my night table, which made me smile. But I still woke up numerous times.

Three nights in, I realized I needed to get serious. So I put my iPad and phone away an hour before bed, skipped the wine and sugar, read instead of watching TV, and fell asleep at 9 p.m. Best of all, I stayed asleep for seven hours.

After a few weeks, I was sleeping better. I got into the habit of leaving my windows open (for fresh air), sprinkling lavender oil beneath my one perfect pillow, and limiting my screen time.

Some things I cannot change: After a lifetime of sleeping on my right side, I cannot make the switch to the left, and I have a 50-50 success rate of not checking the time if I wake up in the middle of the night. Also, I still haven't moved the TV (sorry, Ingrid!). But I 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 making progress.

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