When it comes to sleeping together, what happens in bed before nodding off can often blind people to the sleep foibles of their partners after the fun. You might hear things like, “She makes this funny sound when she sleeps, but the sex is so amazing.” Little sounds can be forgiven early in a relationship, but as time passes and “funny” sounds become the din of gasoline-powered leaf blowers, feelings change. While snoring is probably at the top of most couples’ lists as compatibility deal breakers, there is another more insidious issue that may create even more relationship acrimony: Restlessness.
In dream sleep, we should be paralyzed
For most, sleep is a time of being peaceful, quiet, and relaxed. So relaxed that most people are relatively immobile when they sleep (in dream sleep, we should be paralyzed!). Sure, we wake up to roll over, adjust our pillows, etc., but these movements should typically be few and far between, and they shouldn’t be significant enough for partners to even notice.
Unfortunately, for a surprisingly large number of people (perhaps as many as 15% of the population), sleep doesn’t resemble anything close to the people in those cool space sleep pods in every movie about space exploration (Alien, Prometheus, Passengers, 2001: A Space Odyssey to name a few). They’re not sealed in a glass pod with a serene look upon their faces as they hibernate in a deep sleep on their way to one of Jupiter’s moons. For these twitchy souls, their sleep is punctuated by movement that can occur all night long.
Their bed partners aren’t serene either; they tend to have the look of someone who’s accidentally stumbled into said dance party and cannot find the exit. For them, their rest can be rudely interrupted all night long by tossing, turning, kicking and other subtle body movements. Some observant partners might even notice that the movements happen with a predictable frequency (so called “periodic limb movements”).
Astonishingly, many restless sleepers have little to no memory of anything but blissful sleep during the night. This can make awkward breakfast comments like, “Wow, that was a great night of sleep! Whoa, you look terrible honey. Did you sleep okay last night?”
While some restless sleepers might feel a sense of unease sitting still while watching The Late Show at night, they are usually keenly unaware of their legs moving during sleep. Never in the history of medicine has a condition been so troublesome yet so frustratingly impossible to adequately describe by the sufferer!
So short of a cheap shot with a pillow, how can you get a good night of sleep if you are sleeping with a restless partner?
Encourage your partner to consider seeing a sleep specialist
This is particularly important if your partner’s restlessness has crossed the line into violent activities that put him/her or you in danger. Even the less dramatic restless sleeper, despite feeling like their sleep is normal, have anything but normal sleep. Consider the fact that with every twitch and jerk that occurs through the night, their brain awakens to make that happen. Furthermore, that sense of discomfort they might feel watching TV at night or difficulty sitting still on a long car ride or plane flight might be linked to their sleep-related movements. Conditions like restless legs syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder are treatable conditions that might make both or you sleep better than you ever have.
Choose your bed carefully
While everyone has their list of top bed characteristics when they go mattress shopping, make sure that the bed you two purchase doesn’t transfer motion easily and is large enough for you to create a demilitarized zone between you and the love of your life. You can take this a step further by using separate bedding/blankets, so the tossing and turning is not being felt via pulling on your covers!
Consider a weighted blanket
For some restless people, the addition of weight, particularly on their legs, can make a big difference in terms of sleep quality. There are many weighted blanket manufacturers that can help you find the weight that is best for you. My rule of thumb: if your partner loves it when the dentist puts that lead apron on during dental x-rays, this therapy might be perfect for him or her.
Pay attention to iron
Some individuals with low iron can exhibit restlessness at night. Talk to your doctor to see if ordering a ferretin level (a test measuring iron stores) is appropriate.
Watch these foods
Have your partner eliminate chocolate, caffeine, and/or MSG at night.
Consider a hot bath 30 minutes prior to bed
This can help some sleep less restlessly.
Talk to your partner’s family
Some conditions causing restlessness are highly genetic. Where there is smoke, there is usually fire.
Restless sleep is a common disorder for many couples. These strategies can help you avoid a “sleep divorce” (sleeping in separate beds). If they don’t move the needle and their symptoms are still very disruptive, contact a sleep specialist who can help you fix the problem.
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