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Desperately seeking snoozin’: or how to sleep like a baby. With help from David Bowie, The Who and Ylvis

Date posted: Saturday 28th September 2013

I, I wish you could swim
Like dolphins, like the dolphins can swim

From Heroes by David Bowie

When I was a student I became a very bad sleeper. It took me ages to get to sleep, and I would invariably be wide awake again at four in the morning: usually after a particularly vivid dream. I hadn’t always been like that, but it seemed to creep up on me, and was getting worse and worse. Four big questions used to nag at me in the wee small hours:

I’m pleased to say I have sorted my sleep problems, but the answer to one of those questions still eludes me.

My luck was in when I met a psychology student who was writing a thesis on sleep disorders. Could I be helped by advice gleaned from my new friend’s studies? First of all I would need to fill in a questionnaire and then, to my surprise, my friend volunteered to spend the evening with me: to help me put some of the very latest research findings into practice.

The main questions were about my daily routine, my eating and drinking habits, and what was referred to, rather clinically I thought , as ‘sleep hygiene’. Here’s the upshot of the questionnaire:

This is what happened when my friend came over to spend the evening with me.

We went to the pub and I drank two pints of beer (I’m a little man, so that was a lot. I guess I was a little nervous.) The psychology undergraduate nursed a Tia Maria all evening and predicted, with uncanny accuracy, ‘You’ll be getting up in the night.’

When we got to my bedsit, my friend was unimpressed with my room: ‘It’s too busy in here. Bedrooms are supposed to be relaxing places, with few distractions.’ Down came the Apocalypse Now and Nastassia Kinski posters.

‘You need to be able to switch your brain off from anything intellectual, so you can empty your mind’, so I agreed to stop reading half an hour before I decided to go to sleep, and to close all my books and cover my desk with a cloth.

‘You need to decide on a regular bedtime: no later than 11pm, and to try and stick to it. If you go to bed later than that you will get into sleep debt. It won’t matter how much you try to sleep in at the weekend, you will not be able to compensate for lost sleep. ‘

By this time it was 10.30pm, and getting dangerously near to my new bedtime. I fancied a cup of tea and a Hobnob. No chance: ‘You should avoid eating anything later than two hours before bedtime, and try not to drink anything either.’

‘You drink way too much tea and coffee during the day. Try and cut coffee out altogether, or limit yourself to one coffee early in the morning. Cut out sugary drinks throughout the day, and definitely no biscuits or sweets in the evening.’

What about my waking up at 4am? I’d heard it was a sign of depression, but it was my lack of sleep that was depressing me. ‘I suspect your bladder is full from your nightcap of hot chocolate or Horlicks. You make them with milk. Milk is a food, and during sleep your major internal organs need to rest, so that your body can repair and grow. Cows’ milk is animal fat. That warm milky drink may help you to nod off, but your stomach will be working away throughout most of the night, trying to digest it. There’s a lot of sugar in those drinks too, which will keep your brain buzzing. If you combine a late dinner with alcohol and then a milky drink, it will take your stomach about five hours to fully digest everything: by which time you will be flooded with energy (and busting for a wee wee.)’

What about listening to music? Might that help me to switch off and drift off to sleep?

‘Possibly,’ was the answer, so I slipped the legendary Who album, Who’s Next? onto the turntable. There’s nothing like a bit of Won’t Get Fooled Again to help you switch off.

Roger Daltry: a natural swinger, or did he perfect his art with a wooden spoon and a length of string in his mum’s back garden?

(And you definitely wouldn’t expect to go to sleep after watching this clip!!)

‘Turn that off! It’s too exciting! If you must listen to music, try something very long, very quiet, and very repetitive, with no vocals. Play the same thing every night, if you must, as this will set up an association between the music and sleeping.’ Albatross by Fleetwood Mac was all I had in the way of ethereal music at the time, so that was agreed on. Later on I plumped for Clair de Lune by Debussy.

I was getting exhausted, but had a few more questions left; i.e. is it OK to sleep with a night light on, and shouldn’t you be going home? The night light was a no no: ‘Strictly speaking, our bodies need to associate sleep with darkness, and light with wakefulness. If you have a light on, then your body will not be producing the wonder hormone melatonin which influences your wake/sleep cycle. Now I can’t go home because I have missed the last bus, so I will have to stay here. That is, if you don’t mind.’

Ironically, after all the intellectual exertion, my friend was over-tired and couldn’t sleep. So I offered to do something that always seemed to make anyone yawn when I tried it: ‘You see Skinner and other Behaviourists believed that children learn to talk by imitating adults’ speech and being rewarded for it. However Noam Chomsky has written this amazing book that actually suggests that children are born with an almost instinctive ability to create their own rules of grammar….’

She was fast asleep in no time.

And what about the foxes? Last week I finally stumbled across the answer, given here by Ylvis

What noise do foxes make? It’s not just me asking that question.

And Bowie? The answer is obvious.

The next post will be about helping children, and the rest of their family, get a good night’s sleep.

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7 responses to “Desperately seeking snoozin’: or how to sleep like a baby. With help from David Bowie, The Who and Ylvis”

  1. Trevor says:

    Great blog. Some very good advice in here – with some classic rock stirred in for good measure. Looking forward to the next one!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks Trevor! I’m sure you will recognise many of the ideas as the ones you discussed with me in relation to children with sleep issues.
      You and your terrific CD will be fully referenced in the next post! (And you no doubt know why Fleetwood Mac needed three guitarists for Albatross!!)
      Best wishes

  2. Katja says:

    Wonderful blog, some great advice (albeit no use for me because I’m asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow!).
    But one question might keep me up tonight: Why DID they need three guitarists?

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks Katja
      You’ll have to wait for the next blog before I can answer that question. Dr Trevor Stevens, who is a sleep specialist, musician and Behavioural Psychologist, has a personal experience of Fleetwood Mac in that era, and all will he revealed next week!
      Sleep well!!

  3. Straight off the bat… the Yvlis song is bonkers in a good way.

    Katja, Fleetwood Mac had 3 guitarists because they always needed a reserve on board, as they kept losing them to drugs, stints as gravediggers and cults etc on a regular basis. The position of guitarist in Fleetwood Mac was, at one stage as insecure as being a member of the Pretenders.

    Boring answer re Bowie, because he kept (pre heart attack) reinventing his persona in the realisation that pop culturati (i.e. us) have a short attention span.

    The one and only thing I have in common with the late Mrs Thatcher is the need for very little sleep….However my short sleep was very rudely interupted one night recently….I know exactly how foxes sound, as they make said sound in my garden quite a lot (in the middle of Brighton, I don’t have country pile, as I said, just the one thing in common with Thatch) They also walk about a lot on my loft roof above my head at night.

    Anyway if you want a really effective way to wake you up and out of your sleep I can reccomend sleeping with the loft window open and having a fox fall in through it in the middle of the night.It really is quite effective.Not in a good way.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Foxes on the roof!!! OMG!! WTF!! (What the fox?)
      It’s a good job that hunting with dogs has been abolished, because you could have a pack of hounds a over your roof, or even an entire hunt camped out on the garden waiting for Reynard to come down!

      The next blog is about children with sleep problems, which includes 80% of the autistic population.
      Dr Trevor Stevens, whose work will feature in the post, was dangerously close to being in Fleetwood Mac in the period just prior to Albatross. He became a session musician instead and played with this likes of Paul Kossoff.
      Trevor is still alive, and is a behavioural psychologist and sleep specialist, so I guess he was lucky to have escaped thd curse of Fleetwood Mac.
      Best wishes

  4. Not to mention poor Paul Kossoff
    I’d rather Reynard than Lord Renyard (Lib Dem)bearing in mind that Brighton hosts party conferences.

    Yes Melatonin appears to be one route that works for some people with autism and sleep disorders. But it is, I agree, a massive problem. Also anecdotally another significant distractor is the very high incidence of serious constipation. Forget the so called scientific links with stomach complaints and MMR and stuff and just think how constipation is going to make you feel, especially in concert with serious sensory modulation issues. Probably not like communicating with others.

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