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Sleep: Uncovered - Zen Mamas Teresa Palmer and Sarah Wright Olsen on sleeping, dreaming, and the wind-down rituals they practice while pregnant and postpartum

"Taking a long warm bath; diffusing essential oils like lavender, cedarwood, and chamomile; listening to birth stories or a soothing podcast such as ‘On Being by Krista Tippett’ before folding into bed with the blackout blinds down, sound machine on and earplugs in! This routine really sets me up for a blissful sleep."

When we’re pregnant or have little ones, the world opens up in a beautiful and yet very complex way. Everything changes, including our relationship with our sleep and dreams. A unique medley of emotions, hormones, and concerns (in addition to our transformed body) shifts our need and ability to get sleep; and as our attention turns to the changing landscape of our lives, the content of our dreams—let alone how much we remember—also seems to shift.

In thinking who could shed light upon this timely subject (Mother's Day is this Sunday, May 9), we immediately thought of Teresa Palmer and Sarah Wright Olsen, actresses, entrepreneurs, and founders of Your Zen Mamma. In addition to building a powerfully engaged community dedicated to helping parents and caregivers navigate the universe of pregnancy and parenthood, they are also the authors of the new book, The Zen Mama Guide To Finding Your Rhythm In Pregnancy, Birth, and Beyond.

Below they generously share their experiences and insights, talking about their personal good-sleep go-to’s (for both themselves and their little ones), their favorite vitality-boosting self-care strategies for when a good night’s slumber isn’t on the agenda, what’s on their nightstand, sharing dreams with their kids, and much more. Even if you’re not pregnant or currently caring for little ones, we’re sure you’ll discover some treasures in what they share.

Sarah and Teresa - can also be cropped for Teresa solo

What’s your relationship with sleep? (for example, love it, struggle with it, wish you could get more of it, etc.) How has it shifted from when you were pregnant to having infants to now that your children are getting older?

TP: I’ve had a really interesting relationship with sleep. I had always been a really sound sleeper until 2006 when I was in a situation in my life that felt uncomfortable and stressful; it triggered serious insomnia, and for a period of about three months I was averaging about 4-7 hours of sleep per WEEK. I thought I was losing my mind at the time. I tried everything: drinking straight hops, taking warm baths, meditating, lavender drops, only using my bedroom for sleep, using earplugs and wearing an eye mask. Nothing seemed to help. I eventually went on these strong sleeping tablets which forced my body to sleep but I felt so groggy in the mornings. Ultimately getting out of the situation I was in was the only cure and I slept almost straight for 2 weeks!!

Since that period of time in my life I’ve continued using earplugs every night. I find I need to feel like I’m in a cocoon to get really well-rested sleep. I now sleep incredibly well: I’m typically asleep within 15 minutes and sleep through the night (unless I have a newborn of course!). With my current pregnant belly, I sleep with a pillow either side of it so whichever side I’m on I have something to cuddle to make sure I am in optimal sleeping positioning for the baby's health and safety.

SWO: I love sleep and I try not to think about it too much. I also realize in saying that, that it’s because I am having good sleep currently and if I wasn’t I would probably be thinking about it all the time. I have gratitude for it and for the fact that my body usually does a pretty good job of getting the sleep it needs. When my kids are babies, until about 3 years old, we go through spells of being tired because of wake-ups in the night but I can usually go back to sleep. The most I have ever struggled with sleep is during pregnancy. In my third trimester of my first two pregnancies I would wake up so many times in the night and then have trouble going back to sleep, mostly from discomfort of shifting sides and having to pee.

One of the myriad realms you discuss in your book is sleep strategies for pregnancy. Can you share a few of them?

TP: I love having a bit of a ritual before bed; a warm bath while listening to a birth story before putting my earplugs in and playing our sound machine. We have used the 26-minute track “Chanting the Sacred Mantra Om: Extended Meditation on the 7 Chakras exploring the Inner Universe (Improvisation with Harmonies)” for the past 8 years every single night, so this is what my babies have fallen asleep to each night. We put it on repeat with my phone plugged into a charger and it soothes us into such a deep sleep. It’s instantly calming and I highly recommend it.

We suggest, since sleeping during pregnancy isn’t always the most comfortable, to find the sleep pillow that works for you, whether it be an all-body pillow or just buying two extra pillows to put either side of your tummy; you should feel really held and supported.

If my belly bub is having a particularly restless night, I will often use lavender or lemongrass in a diffuser to treat the senses. I also utilize those silicone-based earplugs to really feel like I’m suspended in a womb-like state mimicking the home my bub currently enjoys!

SWO: Yes. There are many ways to help your body rest better at night. One of which is to sleep with a body pillow. I personally love the one that Holy Lamb Organics makes. It’s simple but so comfortable and made of organic materials. This body pillow helps while you are sleeping on your side to keep your top leg elevated so that your hip is supported, provides comfort between your knees and allows the pressure to be taken off your shoulders as you hug the pillow during sleep. For me, this was a game changer in sleep, so much so that it is my preferred way of sleeping even after having a baby.

Of course, when you have a newborn, it’s not just your sleep that becomes the focus but also their sleep (and, of course, the two are often intertwined). Any tried and true tips for encouraging babies to sleep that you’d like to share?

TP: If you can recreate a womb-like environment, we find that babies respond really well to that. Swaddling, movement, a sound machine, and a darkened room help to let baby know that we are moving in to the part of their day that is quiet sleep time. With all my babies, I swaddle them up, pull down the blackout blinds, put the soothing music on, nurse them, rock them, and lay them down in that general order; when I maintain this loose ritual for them I find that their first stretch of sleep is a really solid one. We believe in room sharing or utilizing safe co-sleeping practices to keep baby close and feeling nurtured within arms’ length. I personally tend to sleep better when I know I’m right there to tend to my babies’ needs throughout the night. Also, a huge recommendation is getting a bunch of friends/family to invest in THE SNOO. We’ve used it with our last two babies and it’s an absolute game changer.

SWO: This really depends on your baby and also the way that you want to sleep. If you are a person who wants to co-sleep/room-share then as long as safe co-sleeping practices are in place I am a huge supporter of this. I was able to feed my baby on her side while sleeping throughout the night and it helped mama and baby sleep better. I didn’t have to get up out of bed; I just had to feed her when she was ready for milk. If you have a baby that needs more comfort and you are room sharing or having your baby sleep in a basinet, they may be more comfortable in a swaddle. There are the classic swaddle blanket methods or you can try a swaddle wrap like The Ollie World.

Invariably, everyone will have their fair share of sleepless nights when they are pregnant and/or have a newborn. What are some of your favorite self-care strategies to help you bolster your vitality when you’re running on little sleep?

TP: I choose a non-negotiable. My family team (4 kids and hubby) all know that for me that looks like a bath with lavender salts and a podcast, and if possible a sleep in! My husband gets up and does the early mornings with the kids as he knows I’ve been breastfeeding throughout the night. Just getting a stretch of uninterrupted sleep really helps recharge the batteries. I know you’ve heard it before, but if your family are around, then try and sleep when your baby sleeps; this always works better for me if the nap means I’m awake before 2 pm so that it doesn’t negatively impact my nighttime routine. A daily green juice and a healthy nutritional shake also can boost energy levels. My company, Lovewell, has a nutrient-dense chocolate shake called Blossom that I drink every morning at breakfast to help get me through a long and activity-filled day.

SWO: Make sure that, if you can, you nap during the day when baby is napping. If that is not possible, then try to go to bed early with your little one to help start your night off with a bit more time in bed. During the day make sure you are eating nourishing foods that will help fuel your body instead of the sometimes first-grab junk food that we want when we are feeling sleepy (this is me also talking to myself). Even though it sounds more exhausting to go for a walk outside, it can actually be so helpful for you and your little one to recharge and reset while getting in some much needed vitamin D.

What are your bedtime rituals and routines? (for example, meditation, journaling, certain essential oils, gadgets, etc.) How do they put you in the mindset for sleeping and dreaming?

TP: Taking a long warm bath; diffusing essential oils like lavender, cedarwood, and chamomile; listening to birth stories or a soothing podcast such as ‘On Being by Krista Tippett’ before folding into bed with the blackout blinds down, sound machine on, and earplugs in! This routine really sets me up for a blissful sleep.

SWO: Love this question as I feel it’s important to take time for yourself in the evenings. For my children I like to do a bath and a baby massage with my Baeo.com Bare Suds and Bare Butter. Touch has been proven to be so important for brain development and a little arm, leg and foot massage can go a long way for your baby. For me, I love to write at night when everyone is asleep. This is when I work on things that feel a bit too involved to work on during the day when I know I’ll be interrupted by kids and babies. I also love to wash my face, take a shower, put on some body oil (favorite from OSEA) and go to bed feeling refreshed, warm and ready for sleep. I do know that if I have too much on my mind I won’t sleep well, so making a list or writing some things down for the next day can help me organize my brain and allow myself the time to unwind. I also love to read a book while going to sleep. When everyone in the house is sleeping (usually around 8 pm) I use my book light and sometimes read a book that I have been excited to dive into. I try to always be asleep by 9:30 pm.

What do you do if/when your sleep is disturbed in the middle of the night? How do you relax and fall back to sleep?

TP: Sometimes one of the kids will wake up, generally Poet for mama milk. If this happens, we just pull her into bed with us, and I nurse her and we cuddle back up to sleep together. We were co-sleeping with her until she asked for a big-girl bed at age 2, so now she sleeps in a bed alongside us. It’s so nice being able to snuggle my hubby again which will only last about 4 months until this newest little baby Palmer arrives! I’m generally pretty lucky that I can fall asleep quickly after nursing; I think it’s because we have always practiced safe co-sleeping and it means I’m not having to get out of bed, put on a light, and wander down the hall to baby's room (which I can imagine really wakes you up.) My babes are right there close so I can stay in a sleepy zone, with the lights out as I nurse and fall back to sleep amongst the OM of our sound machine and with my earplugs still in place!

SWO: Currently with the new baby, this happens often and I’m so tired in the night that I usually fall back asleep pretty quickly. But if I have been woken up multiple times in a row, this can bring me into more of an awake state and I just try to get really comfortable and rest my body. I try to clear my mind and not let it wander too far and just think about how cozy I am and hope that it will eventually bring me back to sleep. If that doesn’t work, then I tell myself that it’s ok if I don’t get sleep: the most important thing for me to do is rest my body and my mind. Sometimes if I have to work early the next day, I have a really hard time sleeping out of a fear of missing my alarm. On these nights, I just use that line about how rest is important and it’s ok if I don’t sleep and that my body will sleep when it needs to.

On dreams:

Do you readily remember your dreams? Did this change for you when becoming pregnant or having your children?

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TP: Yes I do, every night I remember them. I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. I had recurring nightmares as a young girl that I still remember to this day. Sleep and dreaming once used to be anxiety filled as I was afraid of the dark or when I was at my dad’s house - I’d always miss sleeping in my mum’s bed, and living in the middle of nowhere with him I’d often mistake the growling of the koalas outside for the boogie monster! But now my relationship with sleep and dreaming has changed and I look forward to it each evening. There’s something wonderful about waking up and looking for hidden messages within the context of a dream. Sometimes if I find them to be quite profound I’ll journal about them and revisit them later on.

SWO: I have always had dreams and been able to remember them pretty well. The types of dreams change. My dreams as a parent have more intrusive scary thoughts in them about something happening to one of my littles. I understand this comes from intrusive thoughts I have had during the day and I remind myself that I am ok, that my children are ok, and that this is my way of processing.

Did you notice anything special/unique about the dreams you had when you were pregnant compared to those you had before or after?

TP: My dreams since being pregnant with my fourth now have been completely wild and fragmented. In my dream state I often find myself in peril or longing and have to figure out a way to combat my situation. It’s always like I’m watching a massive adventure-filled blockbuster and I’m the protagonist having to navigate all sorts of bizarre and action-packed journeys. My husband says sometimes I talk in my sleep (he snores in his!).

SWO: HA! Yes, dreams before I had kids were very different than during pregnancy and postpartum. My dreams during pregnancy were SO strange. I had dreams about birthing my kids out of my belly button, or being pregnant with golden retriever puppies. I had a dream once about being so excited to meet my baby that I just reached in and grabbed it, held and cuddled it and then put my baby back inside my belly button. These dreams all seem so real and very, very bizarre.

Please share a significant dream and the impact/influence it had upon you.

TP: Over the past year I’ve been having dreams about facing a massive tidal wave. I have trepidation at the best of times in the ocean so these dreams always land me smack bang in the middle of an already uncomfortable situation. I’m usually with my husband or someone else I love and lean on for support who offer up soothing words as the waves come towards me. They’ll usually suggest that I just dive under the wave or roll over the top but I’m panicking; however, I face it and as the wave sucks me under I wake up. It is said that large waves in dreams can signify change, obstacles to be faced that you’re navigating with big emotions. Sometimes this makes sense, especially the past year with the pandemic and a new pregnancy. But I’ve been feeling really emotionally sound; perhaps it’s messages from my subconscious that I need to take some more deep breaths and slow down.

SWO: I had a recurring dream as a child that I still remember; it was a long, detailed and very scary dream about my brother being kidnapped by a cult. I had to go and join the cult to find him, and I remember sitting around a campfire with my heart racing looking for him in the crowd when I saw a shadow of a hand against the wall from the light of the fire. Something was sticking out of the hand and then I realized the hand was mine. Everyone there, including the creepy cult leader, looked at me and then I looked at my hand and some crazy non-existent bug was coming up through my palm. I screamed holding my wrist and when I would wake up, every time, I would be screaming and holding my wrist in bed. YEP that was the one. No idea where it came from or why I would dream this but it made me really protective of my brother.

Do you talk to your kids about their dreams? If so, what are those conversations like?

TP: Yes we do, they’ll often tell me what they’ve dreamt about. It’s battles, dragons, pirate ships, video game characters, etc. They love the idea of dreaming and Bodhi (age 7) recently said to me “what if dreams are our actual life and what we think is real life is actually us dreaming?” He’s very fascinated by other dimensions, spirituality, and the great expanse of the universe. We talk about how big the world is and that we are open to any and all possibilities.

SWO: This is one of my favorite things to do. I love hearing about my kids’ dreams. I ask them if they had a dream and then usually there is some elaborate and incredible story.

On bedroom design: 

Photo courtesy of Teresa Palmer 

Photo courtesy of Teresa Palmer 

How have you designed your bedroom to make it the most cozy and relaxing?

TP: Mark and I each have a night stand with buddhas on them, pieces of meaningful jewelry, there’s a diffuser and incense on his side, and a candle as well as books on meditation and pregnancy on my side. We have an amazing mattress that hardens or softens on each side and a beautiful wooden bed with a dream catcher above us. To our left we have a painting that we had created especially for us that depicts the tree of life, where all sentient beings are one. It’s incredible to look at all the details of it, it encapsulates what we see as unity in the universe, everything connected. Sometimes I find myself focusing on parts of the painting that I haven’t noticed before. Our bedroom is light and airy with lots of windows. Certainly my favorite space in our house.

SWO: We have a platform king bed that faces french doors. We have no curtains so we go to sleep by the light of the moon and wake up with the sun. Our room color is a very light grey-blue, a color that makes me feel calm and reminds me of the ocean. We sleep with an air purifier running and it has a white noise quality that helps with the sound of others shifting in their sleep, because we also have a little mattress on the ground for our oldest two if they want to sleep in our room.

What do you most love about your bed?

TP: We always say we have the best bed in the world. We have slept in hotel beds on all corners of the planet; so many of them are incredibly comfortable, yet ours always takes the cake. We invested in an incredible mattress back in 2013 and I’ve never slept in anything that compares still to this day. I like my side a little softer and can adjust it accordingly, and Mark prefers his harder. It’s a king size bed so enough room for all the kiddies to pile in and have sleepover nights.

SWO: We got our mattress from Naturpedic and the wool topper for it makes the bed so cozy. I love how comfortable my bed is and how it’s low to the ground. The bed is a platform bed in a dark grey linen.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Wright Olsen

Photo courtesy of Sarah Wright Olsen

What's on your nightstand?

TP: Books on pregnancy and meditation, crystals, a large Buddha with meaningful jewelry around his neck. I have universe cards that a friend recently gifted me, a scented candle, and usually a half-drank kombucha! I always bring one to bed with the intention of drinking it as I read or listen to a podcast but I tend to fall asleep before finishing it.

SWO: Right now: the book I wrote with Teresa. A copy of Untamed by Glennon Doyle. A crystal my friend gave me when I experienced a pregnancy loss. A little diaper and wipes holder that has Baeo Bare Butter and Bare Kiss and a necklace my daughter made.

Are there any items that you MUST have near you or your bed every night or else you find it difficult to sleep?

TP: My baby! I’ve had a baby or child in my bed every single night since 2014; it makes me feel relaxed knowing they’re so safe within arms’ reach. I also need to have my phone playing our sound machine, so that’s always plugged in and on repeat. Oh, and if you ask my husband he’ll say “the damn earplugs!!” Haha if they ever go AWOL, I’m up searching for them no matter how long it takes because I can’t sleep without them.

SWO: I have to have a Baeo Bare Kiss on my nightstand because I cannot sleep if my lips feel dry or chapped. I will instead lick them all night long and drive myself bananas.

You can purchase The Zen Mama Guide to Finding Your Rhythm in Pregnancy, Birth, and Beyond HERE

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