NI sleep experts share their tips on getting a good night’s rest during a heatwave

GRAEME COUSINS talks to two sleep experts from Northern Ireland about the affect the weather is having on people’s sleeping routines with particular attention on young children and babies who will never have experienced such temperatures

By Graeme Cousins
Saturday, 24th July 2021, 8:00 am
Updated Saturday, 24th July 2021, 11:07 am
A baby sleeping soundly
A baby sleeping soundly

The three daily requirements for a human being to stay on this mortal coil are eating, drinking and sleeping, yet it is usually the latter which gets shunted much further down our list of must-dos by more pressing activities like finishing a Netflix box set or catching up with messages on WhatsApp.

Given that sleep comes at the end of the day it can easily be put off for a few hours.

However a good night’s sleep, according to two NI experts, has never been more important with our energy levels reaching new lows during the sapping heatwave.

Suzanne Irvine with her children Lochlan (9) and Éirin (7)

But just how do you go about achieving perfect sleeping conditions when the same heat has turned our homes into saunas.

Summing up her field of expertise, Suzanne Irvine said that she “sells sleep”.

She said: “Any time I’m doing workshops for parents I always start by teaching people about why sleep is important. If they don’t understand why sleep is important they won’t be that into making changes they might need to make. They won’t buy into it. That’s what I do for a living – I sell sleep.”

She said: “Prioritising sleep means you’re treating your body – it’s like when you put your device on charge overnight, that’s what we do when we sleep. It releases growth hormones, it builds muscles and bones, it strengthens the immune system, it gives you more energy, you have improved problem solving skills, you can concentrate on tasks for longer, you’re better able to make positive decisions, you get a release of feel good chemicals like serotonin, you’re more creative – you’re the best version of yourself when you get good sleep.

Susan Wallace from Settled Petals

“When you don’t get good sleep your emotions are slightly exaggerated, you’ve increased impulsivity, you’re a bit more irritable, you’ve lower concentration, you don’t have as much interest in things, your physical performance is reduced, you’ve a delayed recovery from illness, you crave more sugary carby foods. People who want to lose weight need to make sure they’re getting seven or eight hours a night otherwise the cravings come.”

Susan Wallace is another sleep expert. She explains why it’s normal to wake up now and again during the night: “We go through a number of sleep cycles every night. You go from deep to light sleep. When in light sleep we do a little test to check our environment is safe, that’s how we’ve survived.

“If you think back to cavemen, if they’d been in deep sleep all night you’d wake up lovely and restored, but if you were in light sleep all night you’d be a lot safer.

“If you were in deep sleep all night and another tribe attacked, the fire went out or your environment went on fire you wouldn’t necessarily wake so every night we go through deep and light sleep.

“When we go through light sleep we do a little scan to check if we’re safe. If the body thinks it isn’t safe it keeps you awake.

“When you’re too hot, you wake up and it can be hard to get back to sleep.

“We all naturally wake in the night, then we usually go back to sleep, but if we’re too hot or too cold or too hungry or we have an unmet need we find it hard to return to sleep.”

Susan said: “We actually sleep an average one hour less than we did a century ago.

“One of the main culprits has been electricity because we can control day and night now. It used to be if it was dark you couldn’t do anything except by candlelight, now if you wanted you could sit up watching television to one or two in the morning because the lights are on and the brain thinks it’s day.

“We’ve totally messed up our sleep in the last century.”

‘Setting the stage’ is vital for a good night’s sleep

Suzanne Irvine, who runs Goodnight Guidance, was the first child sleep consultant to set up in NI in September 2015.

She said that during the day it was important to “set the stage” for good sleep: “Even in extreme temperatures it’s still the same core principles, but obviously there’s extra advice given when it’s warm like this.

“You’re already tired with the extra heat. It makes you worse. It drains you more. If you’re not getting good sleep you’ll be even more drained.

“Sleeping is the same for everyone. It’s about sticking to the same things. It’s really important to keep regular routines in place for adults and children. It’s all about transitioning from day time to night time.

“It’s about keeping calm. A calm child will remain cooler than a frustrated one, the same goes for an adult.

“A child’s bedtime routine could be a light supper, one-to-one connection time, playtime, reading, love and hugs – you want to fill their attachment tank so they’re happy to spend the night away from you.

“Many parents will do this but then don’t have a bedtime routine of their own. They have their day, stop their day, get ready quickly in the bathroom and jump into bed and wonder why they can’t sleep – there’s no wind-down.

“You want to shed the day and transition into night-time.”

Suzanne said that during the day it was important to keep cool and hydrated, but added that alcohol wasn’t the ideal liquid for adults: “Alcohol dehydrates us but as adults we tend to want to drink beer when it’s hot. Alcohol helps many adults fall asleep quicker but it litters your sleep with more wake-ups – it’s not good for sleep at all.”

She added: “As an adult if you’re in bed and find you can’t sleep the best thing to do is get up out of bed and go to another room and do something else relaxing.

“The first tip is don’t look at the time. Once you look at the time psychologically it has an effect, you start think how long you’ve got left until you have to get up.

“Only return to bed when you’re tired – you want the time in your bed to be efficient. You don’t want to associate going to bed with not being able to sleep – that sets in panic.

“When you’re in bed don’t focus on falling asleep, focus on resting your body.

“Reading is good, but you need a cut off point so you’re not just lying in your bed reading past the time you’re tired and ready for sleep.

“What happens then is the body goes into fight or flight mode whenever it’s under stress. Not getting to fall asleep when it needs to produces a big surge of adrenalin and all of a sudden you’re not tired anymore.”

If you can’t leave the room because other people or pets in the house are sleeping, Suzanne suggested meditation or techniques like counting down from 1,000.

Suzanne, a single parent of two from Dundrum, is a member of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants.

She used to be a teacher but sleep deprivation ended her career and opened the door to a new one: “I never made it back into the classroom after my first child because they would have eaten me alive because I was so sleep deprived.

“It was two and a half years when I flew a sleep consultant over from England to help, I couldn’t find anyone here doing it. This was six years ago, it was quite a new thing.

“It changed my life. On the night I thought – I can teach others about this. It was brutal what I went through and my son.

“Then I retrained and set up Goodnight Guidance.”

Benefits of high temperatures

Susan Wallace said that it wasn’t always the case that warm temperatures lead to sleep disruption.

The 37-year-old, who has an 11-month-old girl and another baby on the way, is an expert in relaxation techniques for children.

She said: “There’s some children have actually been sleeping better this last while. There are three main reasons for this.

“When you’re outside in the sunlight, the body picks up on light and produces a hormone named serotonin, it helps make melatonin later in the night time. Basically the sunlight helps to make the sleepy hormone. Children are outside a lot more so they’re getting a lot more serotonin.

“The second thing is children are getting more exercise, they’re outside playing with their friends – exercise is great for sleep.

“The third reason they’re sleeping better is because their sensory needs are met. If we’re getting new experiences, like being outside in a paddling pool, that’s a sensory rich environment, the brain likes that, then it has to try and make sense of that as it goes to sleep.”

She continued: “There’s reasons why other children aren’t sleeping so well. The obvious one is that it’s too warm

“It might also be because it’s too light late at night and early in the morning.

“Sometimes parents let their children stay up later during the summer, they let go of the routine a little bit, their body clock gets interrupted.

“You need to watch for sugar – some ice lollies can be high in sugar, drinks, ice pops, etc. Sugar isn’t great for sleep.”

Susan is one of a number of woman in Northern Ireland who are pregnant during the heatwave.

She said: “Carrying an 11-month old and a bump up their stairs in this heat is tough going.”

For pregnant women suffering in the heat, Susan recommended sun hats and loose fitting clothing, especially shoes, as feet can swell in the heat.

She said: “It’s important to keep hydrated, eating loads of foods that contain water - cucumber, melons, strawberries.”

As well as being a full-time sleep consultant, Susan practises and trains others in baby massage, baby yoga and potty training.

“It’s about promoting calmer families in general,” she said. “Even though I’m a sleep consultant I would always say to families that getting a good night’s sleep is secondary to keeping their babies well.”

Due to her circumstances with 11-month-old Mary and a 30-week bump Susan has adopted working practices to suit her needs: “I work weekends, nap times, evening times, I work around the baby. I would be doing 37 hours, just not the same way everyone else does.”

Susan was a social worker for 10 years and had previously done a degree in education, a masters in social work, and was a nanny.

She said that lockdown has allowed her to expand her business: “I switched to Zoom – it works really well. Last week 75% of my clients were English. I would never have been able to reach those families before because most people didn’t know what Zoom was.

“With being pregnant I’ve just maintained Zoom, I know some may have gone back out to people’s houses.

“I just got course accredited in June which allows me to train people to become sleep consultants. I’m now running courses online in sleep, massage, yoga – people from Europe are on those courses.

“In some ways staying in the house has opened up the world for me. It’s funny how the less you go out the higher reach you’ve got.”

Sleeping tips for all ages

• An ideal room temp for sleeping is between 16 and 20 degrees Celsius.

• Keep your curtains or blinds closed during the day to keep direct sunlight out but keep the windows open all around the house to create an airflow.

• Use a fan to keep a room cool but, says Susan “if using it in a child’s bedroom, never point it directly at a child.”

• Frozen water bottles can be set in front of the fan for extra cooling effect.

• Wet a towel in cold water then wring it out and put it over a chair – as it starts to dry moisture will cool down room.

• A bowl of ice works on the same principle.

• Use breathable bedding materials and pyjamas made from cotton or linen.

• Change a duvet to a lower tog or use a cotton sheet to sleep under.

• If you wake up and can’t get back to sleep go to another room and do something relaxing before returning to bed.

• Try not to look at the time as knowing what time it is will add extra pressure to getting back to sleep.

• Babies can sleep in as little as a nappy if their room is warm, and children can sleep in just their underwear if they’re struggling with the heat.

• Susan said that the best place to check a baby’s temperature is at back of their neck.

• Screens need to go off one hour before sleep. Suzanne said: “The blue light from screens stops production of melatonin – it’s the sleep hormone. When we look at a screen we’re tricking our brain, ‘it’s not time to sleep yet, don’t produce melatonin’.”

• Reading is a good activity before bed but as soon as you start to drift off you need to put down the book otherwise you could get a rush of adrenalin – a second wind – and find it difficult to get to sleep

• Watch out for products containing a lot of sugar, especially close to bedtime, as it will keep you or your child awake

• Body lotions and sun creams can be kept in the fridge to keep them cooler