What My Mom Taught Me About Good Sleep

by Dr. Gladys Ato

Photo by Mpho Mojapelo

Growing up, I didn’t have any problems sleeping. 9 hours a night was typical. Weekends were a chance to catch up on not getting my preferred 11 hours of sleep. You could say that sleep and I got along really well.

When I started high school, I noticed how my mom wasn’t sleeping as much. She took on a second job to help pay for my sister’s and my education. And a swimming pool because as a competitive swimmer, I told her I needed a pool to practice in each day. I used that pool less times than I used a curling iron (I have curly hair).

My mom worked at a major chicken processing factory in central California. Her second job was at a local bakery where she decorated cakes. Within months after starting the bakery job, she decided to add a 3rd job and start her own cake business from home.

Her days consisted of waking up at 10pm to head to her graveyard shift at the processing factory. She’d arrive at 9am to her bakery job. At 4pm, she would head home to start baking cakes while also making dinner for the family. She was lucky to make it to bed by 6pm.

Getting some of that needed REM sleep for a few hours before doing it all over again at 10pm was a luxury for my mom. Actually, it was a miracle when it happened. Seriously. How easy is it to fall into a deep sleep after you’ve been working at warp speed all day, just ate a full meal, and are stressed out about getting enough good sleep before waking up in 4 hours?

My mom kept this up for 17 years. When I was in college studying to become a clinical psychologist, I remember sitting in my Sleep and Dreaming course one day where the lecture was on the physiological need we have for quality sleep. Getting sleep that includes around 2 hours of deep (REM) sleep to repair the body, enhance learning, and help you function throughout the day has a huge impact on boosting your quality of life. At that moment, I knew my mom wasn’t getting enough restorative sleep…and she was dying from it.

My mom passed away when she was 54 years old from a brain aneurysm. “Too much pressure” is the reason the doctor said she died. Truth is, there were a myriad of factors that contributed to her early death, but lack of quality sleep was definitely one of them.

After her death, I looked at sleep in a completely different way. Not only do I keep up my 9 hours a night routine, I make very little exceptions to it, even for work. This has been hard when it’s expected that you bend over backwards to meet the demands of who’s providing your paycheck. But I learned through the greatest loss of my life that nothing warrants giving up what restores you each day and keeps you functioning optimally. Sleep is sacred.

If you’re struggling to get the proper amount of sleep each night to function at your highest level, there are some simple ways to change that. First thing first, it’s critical to realize this foundational premise:

Your bedroom is a sanctuary.

This is the space where you safely restore your entire being from the stressors of life. It’s where you step into the dreamworld to access new ideas, solutions to problems, and insight into your purpose. It’s where you get to experience the blessing of being alive each new morning.

To start treating your bedroom as a sanctuary rather than a place where you just crash at night, ask yourself: how do you want to feel when you walk into your bedroom at the end of a long day?

Create your sanctuary based on what you want to see, feel, smell, and think when you enter the room. Design a space that fills you up with a sense of serenity, joy, and gratitude. Here are some simple tips to get you on your way to better sleep and a better life.

Clear the Clutter

It’s easy to walk into the bedroom after a grueling day of nonstop stress, throw your clothes on the floor, and crawl into the bed to pass out. The next day, you get up, leave the bed unmade, and keep the clothes piled on the floor. In one week, your bedroom is now cluttered.

Clutter brings stress. When you see clutter, your brain gets distracted with it, making you feel overwhelmed and unable to focus on what you most need to get quality sleep: no stress.

To start embracing the sacred nature of sleep, make it a priority to clean your bedroom. Organize your room so that clutter isn’t what you first think of when you walk in to go to sleep. Then, keep it clean regularly.

When you change out of your day clothes, put them away immediately rather than tossing them on the floor or chair. Keep your sheets fresh. Dust the room weekly. Open your window to bring in fresh air and remove any stagnant energy.

The Sweet Smell of Sleep

You’ve seen those Febreeze commercials where a room full of stank all of a sudden makes someone feel cozy and relaxed with a simple spray of the stuff, right? Well, whether your preferred scent is Febreeze or something more natural like essential oils, your bedroom should smell amazing and help trigger the feelings you want to have when entering the space of sacred slumber.

One way to do this is to use an essential oil diffuser. The beauty of essential oils is that you get to customize the scent you want in your bedroom based on how you want to feel.

What you smell is strongly correlated with your emotions and memory. Think of how you feel when smelling fresh baked cookies. Memories from past moments of baking flood in and trigger the same emotional responses you had in the past. You can re-create this experience in the bedroom so that your brain learns that certain smells mean it’s time for good sleep.

Do some research on essential oils and have fun experimenting with the scents that will help produce the emotions you want to have. Calming lavender? Soothing eucalyptus? Insomnia-busting Bergamot? You’ve got limitless choices and can fall asleep being lulled by the sweet smells of what you desire.

Re-energize without Radiation

Prior to cellphones (yep, I was around during that time), I used an alarm clock to wake up in the morning. Before clocks, we had the reliable sun to nudge us out of sleep. Now, we have our cell phones on the nightstand. Or, if you’ve got one of those sleep tracking apps, your phone is cuddling right next to you all night long.

While radiation waves from cell phones are classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the real threat to maintaining your sanctuary of slumber is the temptation to check your emails, scroll through your news feed, and ultimately stress yourself out right before you try falling asleep.

Yes, I understand that this may seem to be a relaxing way to doze off, but what you’re actually doing is putting strain on your eyes to read the bright white screen in the dark, re-activating your brain to be alert, and preventing the release of melatonin which is your body’s way of saying it’s time for bed.

Now I get you may have a list of “valid” reasons for keeping your cell phone in the bedroom, but here’s the bottom line. Your quality of life shouldn’t be dependent on a piece of technology. If we survived all these years without the use of cellphones in the bedroom, we can keep doing so without fear of death.

Get a traditional alarm clock. Check your emails and news feed before stepping into your sanctuary. In doing this, you’re retraining your brain to understand that when you walk into the bedroom, it time to de-stress and prepare for a good night of sleep.

Start the Day with Thanks

What you think and feel in the morning has a big influence on the kind of day you’ll have. Start the morning not by grabbing your phone to read the doom and gloom of the world (save that for later), but engaging in a practice of gratitude. This will help you create a sleep routine that starts and ends positively.

To do this, simply name 5 things you’re grateful you did the day prior. Then say to yourself “I commit to (insert whatever you want to do that day to stay in a space of gratitude).” When I started this practice, it took me a while to resist the temptation to skip it and grab my phone instead to check emails. But now, it’s the first thing my mind thinks about as soon as I open my eyes — Gratitude.

While my lessons of the need for good sleep came through the tough loss of my mother, you can choose to make sleep one of your biggest priorities right now through simple tweaks to how you view your bedroom. Create the kind of sanctuary that makes you feel like you’re stepping into a haven of restoration, relaxation, and bliss. Then, let nothing stop you from going there to indulge in quality sleep for as long as you can every single night of your life.


Dr. Gladys Ato is a personal development strategist and educator. She founded Bridging Consciousness to help high-achieving leaders transcend burnout and create an optimal lifestyle fueled by creativity, joy, and purpose.