Personal Story

I’m a Toddler Mom—Here’s How I Prioritized My Sleep Health for an Entire Year

and what happened when I did
written by EMILEE JANITZ
Source: Canva
Source: Canva

In December 2022, I experienced debilitating insomnia. I would lie in bed at night wide awake, tossing and turning for eight straight hours, slowly and very surely sinking into a spiraling anxiety that, of course, only made sleep more difficult to obtain. For two weeks, I ran on approximately 57 minutes of sleep per 24-hour cycle, causing me to feel both physically ill and mentally unstable. 

But let me backtrack and set the stage a bit. At the time, my daughter was 3 months old. She was still sleeping in my bedroom, though my husband and I did move her into the nursery after my first week of not sleeping (as anyone who’s ever been a parent to a newborn knows—babies are surprisingly loud sleepers). She and her older brother (who was nearly 2 years old at the time) were both excellent sleepers; though, I mention their age to illustrate how critical my getting a good night’s sleep was and how not being able to sleep at night was putting me in a position to have a very long day ahead. 

Experiencing Insomnia as a Mom of Two Under 2

My two-week experience with insomnia was eye-opening. While I had experienced the condition as a child (I’ve since looked back and recognized I was an anxious little person), experiencing it as a parent of two young children was legitimately traumatizing. Every waking moment of my day was spent thinking about sleep and worrying I wouldn’t get any during the night to come. This, of course, became a self-fulfilling prophecy—a vicious cycle that, unfortunately, many insomniacs are familiar with. It’s taken over 12 months to even be comfortable sharing this story as—up until recently—even thinking about the experience was triggering.   

I speculate that a combination of postpartum anxiety (I remember reading it’s common to experience insomnia when your newborn is a good sleeper), holiday stress (my insomnia peaked on Christmas Eve), and long COVID-19 caused the insomnia. And while I never ascertained an exact answer, I did come to a very sound conclusion at the time: I wanted to get better sleep

So, I made sleep health the cornerstone of my life. I made a lot of life changes. And I—thankfully—saw results. One year later, I’m getting the best sleep of my life. I fall asleep quickly, and I stay asleep all night. Just as amazing as my solid REM cycles, I’ve also seen a lot of positive outcomes in other facets of my life brought on by the changes to my routine. Here’s how I took back my sleep health and the many benefits I saw as a result of this decision.

How I Prioritized Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

It’s hard to prioritize yourself as a mother. But at the end of the day, sometimes you just have to. Especially when it comes to your health. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was barely surviving. This, of course, made it even more difficult to show up for my children as a caregiver. I knew that prioritizing my sleep health had to become one of those non-negotiables. The mental commitment to prioritize sleep was half the battle.

I do also feel it’s important to be very clear on two factors that made my journey to better sleep straightforward. First: My children are excellent sleepers. They ask to go to bed in the evening and stay in their beds all night. Even while sick, they sleep through the night. Second: I have a very supportive partner. My husband witnessed how lack of sleep was causing me severe distress and did all he could to support me in my commitment. On the rare instance a child was up earlier than normal or calling over the monitor, woken from a nightmare, he was there to answer the call. I recognize how fortunate I was and am to have both of these conditions in place and how not everyone shares the same life experiences. 

Regardless of what your situation currently looks like, I hope these tips on how I was able to prioritize sleep help you in your journey to catching more zzz’s.

how to prioritize sleep
Source: ColorJoy Stock

I Established a Firm Bedtime and Wake Up Routine

My husband and I have our kids on a pretty firm schedule (for example, they go to bed between 7:15 and 7:30 p.m. every single night). This, in turn, made establishing my sleep routine more manageable—my evenings are incredibly predictable. I started going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (11 p.m. and 6 a.m., respectively). Setting a firm routine helped me get my internal clock in order. 

Now that it’s been a year, and I no longer worry about insomnia creeping its way back in, I do occasionally flex the hours on the weekend (a later bedtime and sleeping in when the kids allow), but I do stay within an hour of both times. I find that I am generally happier and more at ease when I know exactly when I’ll be going to bed and waking up each day. My kids love routine and, as it turns out, so do I. 

I Made Time for Exercise

I’ve been a “move your body every day” gal for years. I exercised through both of my pregnancies and never sacrificed a daily workout after my first child was born. I was off to a good start when my second was born, but a few months in, I found my routine becoming a little more lax. The holiday season was upon us during my fourth trimester, and between adjusting to being a mother of two and running around trying to create Christmas magic, I found myself skipping my workouts more than I would have liked. 

When I really started striving for better sleep, I knew that exercise had to be part of my daily equation. There are any number of medical sources that will tell you regular physical exercise leads to better sleep, including the Cleveland Clinic. I used this as motivation to stop feeling guilty every time I wanted to squeeze in a 30-minute workout. These daily workouts became one of my non-negotiables. To make this happen, I started waking up before the rest of the house (see firm routine) and also leaning on my husband for support to watch the kids while I got a sweat in on the weekends if a morning workout was missed for one reason or another.

I Committed to Spending Time Outside

I live in Central New York, where we very much get all four seasons. Winter tends to be very long and very cold. It’s all too easy to squirrel yourself away for a solid six months, sustaining yourself on endless cups of coffee and baked goods, praying with every fiber of your being that the snow will stop before May. The problem with spending all your time inside is that you’re depriving yourself of fresh air and the kind of healthy UV exposure that helps you sleep better at night by moderating your circadian rhythm.

To overcome my insomnia—which, again, I experienced during the months of December and January—I very directly and actively told myself to get over the cold and go outside. As it turns out, if you wear an appropriate coat, gloves, and winter hat, the cold really isn’t so bad. I started committing to a daily 20-minute walk outside every day. During the summer months, I didn’t have to try so hard to get outside (for obvious reasons) but thanked myself for already having made a habit of taking a daily walk in the fresh air. 

I Stuck to a Lengthy “Wind-Down” Routine

When I was younger, I remember being able to hop right into bed after a busy day of school, work, or socializing (or a combo of the three) and fall asleep immediately. The reality is, I just can’t do that anymore. My mind and body need time to decompress from the day. I started committing to a 90-minute wind-down routine. This may sound like a lot to some, but it’s what I’ve come to realize I need. These 90 minutes include nightly skincare rituals, television with my husband, and—cutting the screen time immediately before bed—a solid 30 minutes of reading before lights out. Again, having my kids on their own firm schedule makes this daily routine possible.

I Started Taking CBD Supplements Regularly

After trying ashwagandha, lavender lotions, melatonin (which I learned is really not intended to be an everyday sleep aid), and what felt like literally everything, the only thing that truly helped me was CBD. And, to be more specific, CBD supplements that contained CBN, a cannabinoid known for causing drowsiness. While the effects were never dramatic, these supplements helped me take the edge off in a subtle, almost subconscious manner. Because I was prone to nighttime anxiety, anything I could do to calm my racing thoughts was helpful. I used to be someone who truly just didn’t understand the CBD craze—now I can’t imagine my life without it. Of course, anyone should discuss taking CBD or other supplements with their healthcare provider first.

I Paid More Attention to What I Ate and Drank

I was in the throes of nurturing a newborn, so I give myself grace when I say I wasn’t overly concerned with what I was putting in my body (especially considering I’m a formula feeder). Like many baby moms, I was hammering coffee. And because it was the holiday season, eating cookies like it was my side hustle. The first night I had insomnia, I remember thinking, “I drank hot chocolate tonight. Is the sugar keeping me awake?” While I don’t think the cocoa was to blame, it was a good reminder that not all foods set one up for a healthy night of sleep. I started paying closer attention to my sugar and caffeine consumption.

how to prioritize sleep

What Happened After a Year of Prioritizing My Sleep

As you can probably tell—I went after the sleep game hard. And if you have ever suffered from insomnia, I’m sure you can also understand why. If it sounds like I fully committed, it’s because I did. And I can tell you it was beyond worth it. With sleep prioritization as my north star, I found that so many aspects of my life were positively influenced. By focusing on getting better sleep, I inadvertently and holistically improved my health and life. Long story short: Yes, I started sleeping better. Much better. But here are some of the other benefits I was able to reap from my change in lifestyle:

I Decreased My Sugar, Alcohol, and Caffeine Intake

As mentioned above, I started being more mindful of what I was putting in my body. I limited myself to one cup of caffeinated coffee per day, always consumed before noon. I also started cutting back on my processed sugars. And—for a time—I even cut out alcohol cold turkey. I’m not a doctor, but I would say all of these actions were and are a win for my overall health.

A year later, I do find myself enjoying multiple cups of coffee per day (I’m only human, and it’s my favorite vice), and I do enjoy a glass of wine a few nights of the week, but the amount overall is less. I’ve also held up in keeping my processed sugars to a minimum. The funny thing about sugar is that the more you start cutting it, the less you miss it.

I Improved My Physical Health

Similar to my pre-child self, since prioritizing sleep, I haven’t allowed myself to skip a workout. While I’ve always enjoyed exercise for its mental and physical benefits, knowing that it helps me sleep better at night has just been one more validating reason for me to make it a priority. It’s an extra motivator and one that I welcome as someone who loves being active. I’m proud of myself for my commitment and also proud that my cardio and strength have significantly improved over the past 12 months. By cutting excess sugar from my diet, I also found myself feeling generally more energized—goodbye late afternoon sugar slumps!

how to prioritize sleep
Source: Elevae Visuals

I Started Spending More Time Outside

On top of my daily walks, I started finding as many ways as possible to increase my time outside. I work remotely, so I started working outside when the weather allowed. I even began adding 15-minute time blocks to my work calendar so that, even if the weather wasn’t great for working outdoors, I could still get my daily outdoor walk in during the work week. I’ve also spent the past year committing to getting my kids outside as much as possible. At every possible opportunity, my husband and I had them playing in the yard, at the park, at the local nature center, and more. While I can’t scientifically prove that this added time outside contributed to my sleeping better, I know with 100 percent certainty that it improved my mood and mental health.    

I Decreased My Screen Time (and Increased My Time Spent Reading)

Since becoming a mom, I’ve been on a mission to decrease my screen time. While I’ve been good about staying off my phone around my children, I was still finding myself mindlessly scrolling through social media at night. Informed by way too much Google research related to insomnia, I knew that this late-night scrolling (and blue light exposure) was not helping my cause for better sleep.

As mentioned above, I started committing to reading at least 30 minutes before bed. It definitely helped me fall asleep faster (reading makes me ridiculously drowsy) and also inadvertently helped me rediscover my love of reading. Last year, I read over 40 books (quite possibly the most I’ve ever read in a single year to date), and this year I’m aiming for 50. I improved my quality of sleep but I also rediscovered a forgotten, but treasured pastime in the process.

I Lowered My Stress Levels

Between eating healthfully, limiting my caffeine, getting outside more frequently, and spending less time online, I lowered my stress levels this past year exponentially. While stress management was part of the initial goal, I do feel as if the payoff was greater than I was expecting.

I Became More Attuned With My Children’s Sleep Health

I’m blessed that both of my children are superb sleepers. They were both sleep trained by two months of age and, today, actually ask to go to bed at night. That being said, around when he reached the age of 2, I started observing my son having a more difficult time falling asleep at night. While he was content to lay in his bed, I knew that I could do better to help him move beyond tossing and turning for 30+ minutes on the daily. 

By becoming more educated on the subject, I’ve been able to become an advocate and supporter of my children’s sleep health. On the days we can’t get outside, I try to supply them with alternative means of exercise. If physical activity doesn’t happen one day (which is rare—they’re toddlers, after all), I give them an activity that is mentally stimulating. Screen time is limited and does not directly precede hopping into bed. I’m proud that the knowledge I’ve acquired and my own learning experience has allowed me to support them in getting the best night’s sleep possible.

how to prioritize sleep as a mom
Source: Elevae Visuals

Moms Need Sleep—They Just Do

Suffering from insomnia as the mother of two young children was one of the worst experiences of my life. But it brought home to me one irrefutable truth: Sleep is critical for both mental and physical health. As a mom, it’s so easy to sacrifice yourself—your time, health, and joy—for the sake of feeling like you’re supporting your children or spouse or simply just “getting through” the day. Workouts get skipped. Healthy groceries go unprepared, passed over for the chicken nuggets that are already out of the oven. If you’re a mom, you know how the story goes. 

We know that we owe it to ourselves to do better. To do right by ourselves. For me, I put my sleep above (almost) everything else. One year into my commitment to sleep, and I’m feeling at peak health, both mentally and physically. It’s not always easy to make time for yourself, but I’m learning that it’s worth it. After all, it’s truly amazing what you can do after a good night’s sleep.