One of the hardest parts of early stage parenting is the sleep deprivation. When you add in a pandemic where “safe” childcare suddenly wasn’t easy to come by, then all time and especially sleep becomes a zero sum game between me and my co-parent. And the whole world is having sleep problems.
Work provided me with subscriptions to several programs to help with sleep as part of our healthcare program, so I thought I’d try them out. I tried out Sleep.io and Headspace. Both were marketed to me as having help specific for parents. Both helped me, but I think *I* got a lot more out of Headspace, and Sleep.io’s advice triggered headaches. Here’s some of my notes on them both in case it’s helpful for other parents or people looking for sleep help:
Headspace vs Sleep.io
Headspace is primarily a meditation app, which includes a number of meditations to help you prepare for sleep, including a course on sleep to help you learn and practice techniques. I initially tried it for a 30 day meditation challenge at work, doing both regular meditation and sleep-oriented content in that time.
Sleep.io is a 10 week sleep course. It’s absolutely filled with known research on sleep and focuses on a few techniques plus asks you to keep a sleep diary so it can help make specific recommendations. It’s also got a big encyclopedia of articles and some discussion forums, but I only read one article and didn’t try the forums at all. I also did my 10 weeks not entirely consecutively because I missed the reminders and forgot. (I probably should have another whole blog post about how badly I am served by most reminders as a parent, but that’s another story for another time.)
I started using both in 2020. I’ve kept up with Headspace because I continue to find it useful but haven’t gone back to Sleep.io since I completed the course.
Parental Sleep vs Kid Sleep
A lot of times when people say “sleep help for parents” they really mean “helping your kid sleep better” but… honestly, I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves for kids to sleep well but their bodies are gonna do what they do. I don’t think I’m going to be able to stop my kid from waking up in the middle of the night sometimes (it’s normal for his age!) so focusing on that wasn’t going to improve my sleep. What I wanted out of these apps was to improve my own sleep so I could deal with nightmares and try to minimize insomnia.
Sleep.io had an article about helping kids to sleep that repeated stuff I knew, and most of it was more relevant for older kids. It didn’t really have anything for parental sleep.
Headspace has kid sleep meditations in conjunction with Sesame Street monsters. They’re pretty cute but my kid was so excited about having a video at bedtime that I think they were mostly counter-productive but still kind of fun sometimes. They have some pretty good content for parents, though honestly I found the regular sleep content was more of what I needed for my parental sleep needs.
What worked for me
My biggest sleep challenge was about getting back to sleep after being woken by my child (or by pandemic nightmares), as well as some busy-brain/having to do tasks late at night before-bed insomnia.
Sleep.io contained a lot of information I already knew about preparing for sleep and having a good sleep environment. But it was good to review, and it primed me for noticing when we needed a new mattress so that was helpful long after I finished the course.
Doing the course encouraged me to try changing my pre-bed routines, which is why I seldom write in this blog any more: the screen/brain active time right before bed was noticeably causing me to stay up later than I intended. I’m going to have to find a different solution for writing if I want to prioritize it. (do I? probably. do I want to right now? It’s probably ok if I don’t. I’ve volunteered to do more writing for work so I don’t get out of practice but also don’t have to fit it into my personal time.)
The most mystifying thing I found in the course was their assertion that reading before bed was bad but watching tv would be fine as part of a wind down. I can’t tell if I’m more active about my video watching or just more sensitive to blue light but TV was not a viable wind down for me when I experimented.
Headspace was the real winner here, though: it took very close to the full 30 days of practice, but Headspace trained me to recognize when I was drowsy enough to sleep and help me put my brain into “sleep mode.”
Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to work and for the first few weeks it kind of felt pointless. But with repeated practice I got to the point where the repeated sleep meditation could help me let go, and some of the other exercises like the “noting” one actually did help me stop fixating on stuff right before bed. (It took longer than the 30 days before I could just run through the ideas in my head and get similar results.) I can fall asleep faster after wake-ups pretty consistently now (my biggest issue) and it’s helped with my occasional bouts of insomnia. Not every time, but most of the time I can snap myself out of it and sleep now.
What didn’t work for me
The biggest fail for me was the “sleep efficiency” stuff in Sleep.io. The idea is to improve your quality of sleep by giving up naps and making sure you’re tired when you go to sleep so you’ll stay asleep better. This completely doesn’t work when you have an external force in the form of a young child waking you up every night. Mostly it gave me headaches, so I gave up without giving it the full go because I didn’t want to trigger a migraine.
The other fails were more minor. Headspace leans heavily on a “picture the blue sky” visualization in their early training program. I’m incredibly photosensitive when I have a headache, so “picturing the blue sky” was viscerally painful to do at times. I switched to visualizing a night sky with stars and it was fine. There were a few other visualizations that didn’t work for me unmodified, but aside from me thinking a few unkind thoughts about ableism I was able to adjust them to work for me.
Also, it’s worth noting that while I mostly do the sleep meditations as expected, I typically knit during the daytime meditations. This isn’t my first foray into meditation, and when I last did it in college I found it significantly more effective for me if I was moving (at that time it was mostly walking). It needs to be something simple that I can do with my eyes closed and without looking at a pattern, but knitting helps immensely when I can do it without it becoming a distraction. You may notice I’ve knit more plain socks with self striping yarn in the past year: these are perfect for meditation time.
I also really hated the logging system for Sleep.io. If I hadn’t had the data mostly from my fitness watch thingy, I likely would have given up on logging entirely because the data entry form was such a minor but consistent annoyance to me. I already knew what a minimal amount of sleep looked like thanks to my fitness band’s tracking, though I think Sleep.io might have been helpful there if I hadn’t already analyzed that data myself. I’d tracked this for headaches, so I knew when I was dangerously tired. I also knew that sometimes naps would be required in lieu of painkillers, which didn’t fit into the Sleep.io worldview at all. I would not be surprised to find others find the program a little problematic when combined with other sleep-impacting health issues.
Headspace actually improved my sleep. I felt foolish, but forcing myself to keep up a regular practice actual had an impact and I’m very happy to continue. I’ve also found it very helpful in switching from “parent mode” to “work mode” which is a big thing for me thanks to my pandemic-instigated lack of childcare. I no longer do it every day, but a few times a week I still find it helpful.
Sleep.io improved my sleep minorly at the cost of giving me intense headaches when I tried to follow their recommendations. If you’re not headache prone or simply haven’t spent as much time reading sleep research this program may be good for you to go through all of that, but for me it was only a partial win and I wouldn’t recommend it for parental sleep in particular because of the focus on uninterrupted sleep.