I Spent Six Months Trying Fancy Sleep Products — Here's What Actually Worked

by Caitlin Abber
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The best part of being a baby was having someone else put you to bed. Whoever took care of you was responsible for wiping off all the day’s dirt, feeding you a warm bottle, swaddling you in soft blankets, singing a sweet song, and laying you down in a secure little crib, usually before 8PM. It’s so cruel that it's nearly impossible to recreate this time in our lives, given the fact that most of us could use some major assistance in the sleep department right now.

As adults, we’re responsible for putting ourselves to sleep, and most of us are really bad at it. According to recent studies, 45 percent of the world’s population suffers from some sort of sleep deprivation, and 1 in 3 Americans aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep, which should be at least 7 hours a night for people ages 18-60. For many people, especially those working multiple jobs with demanding hours, this is no fault of their own, but rather, an indicator of a larger problem with how our society values work, sleep, and productivity. Or there is an underlying medical issue, which only a doctor can diagnose and treat (and yes, you should be hitting up a doctor if lack of sleep is seriously impacting your life).

That said, for many of us, our lack of sleep is an unmade bed of our own making. Instead of retiring to cozy cribs, we’re awkwardly dozing off on the couch, our phones clutched in our hands in anticipation of work emails or terrifying New York Times alerts. In lieu of of taking warm, sweet-smelling baths, we’re waking up with eye makeup smeared across our pillows, our lips cracked and tinted with red wine. We are exhausted all day because life is exhausting, but also because getting ready for bed and getting a good night’s sleep has become another chore, and worse, it's now another thing we feel stressed about about.

In order to enjoy sleep, I had to stop feeling guilty for indulging in it.

Dr. Janet K. Kennedy, a licensed Clinical Psychologist with a focus on sleep training disorders and author of The Good Sleeper: The Essential Guide to Sleep for Your Baby — And You, tells me that for her millennial clients, the biggest issue is being able to “turn off” their minds at night. “The most common cause of sleep issues is ruminating or racing thoughts at bedtime,” she says. Yup. Been there, cried into that pillow.

Anxiety about life — work, family, political stuff — has definitely taken a toll on the quality of my sleep. In my 30-ish years, I’ve been able to find countless ways to keep myself awake and on edge, and I’ve also tried almost every solution — herbal, medicinal, therapeutic, technological — to calm myself down.

Like many millennials, it's gotten so bad that I have seen doctors about it. Dr. Kennedy says that when clients come to her, they are often “at a breaking point” — which I can totally identify with.

But, over the last year (in between popping melatonin and wondering if I should get up at 5AM and just be one of those people), I had a revelation: Sleep only works when it actually feels good. In order to enjoy sleep, I had to stop feeling guilty for indulging in it. In fact, I had to indulge in it with abandon. It’s a giant portion of my life, after all. Shouldn't I be putting more effort into it?

For the past six months I have been treating sleep like a glamorous event where I am the guest of honor. I’ve tested countless sleep products, including pajamas, face creams, linen sprays, mattresses, sheets, playlists, and podcasts guaranteed to give me the most and bestest Zzzs. I’ve also spoken with doctors and sleep experts, including Dr. Kennedy, as well as media mogul-turned-snooze guru Arianna Huffington, to learn more about how we can really tap into the power of bedtime. And you know what? Some of this stuff really works. I'm sleeping better than I have in almost 33 years —like pretty much since I was in diapers.

So here’s my letter of recommendation for 2018: Commit to the idea that you deserve not just to sleep, but to sleep like a fancy baby, swaddled in the coziest pajamas, smelling like the heart of a eucalyptus forest. You don’t have to change your routine all at once, but I promise you, if starting to treat yourself a little better at night, it will pay dividends for days to come.

Here are some tips and products to help you start, and keep, this most necessary resolution.

We all know the routine: You need to wash your face. Seriously. All the eyeliner needs to come off, and the places where you breakout need to be attended to. Comb your hair. Brush your teeth (and floss if you’re feeling superior). Put on some moisturizer. Stop looking at your damn phone. This is all good, but it is not transformative. To actually transform your relationship to sleep, consider giving yourself one hour — or even two hours (OK, an hour and a half), to prepare for bed. Yes. I am serious. Just look at Arianna Huffington.

This is a woman who is passionate about sleep. She believes our universal exhaustion is killing us — not just individually, but also as a species. And while there’s a lot to be said about the class implications of who is and isn’t afforded a decent night’s sleep, the thing is, she’s right. Sleep deprivation increases the risk of chronic illness, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression.

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When I interviewed Huffington for Uninterrupted, the Women’s Health podcast in the spring of 2016 — hot on the heels of the publication of her book, The Sleep Revolution — I asked her about how she reformed her own bad sleep habits, and she told me that one of the most essential parts of her pre-bed ritual is taking an epsom salt bath like a newborn baby every single night.

“Every night?” I asked her.

She looked me straight in the eyes. “Yes. Every night.”

For me, baths have always felt like work. They’re always too hot or too cold and you have to take a shower afterwards if you truly want to be clean. And then of course the time — I don’t have kids or even a ton of after-work responsibilities, but it’s very hard for me to find 30 minutes where I can be totally nude and not attached to an electronic device. To be honest, before my six month sleep-improvement experiment, investing in the time and ritual of taking a bath actually increased my anxiety. For many of us they just aren’t feasible, and that’s okay — the last thing we should do is feel guilty about not being “good enough” at self-care.

Instead of stressing about not being “relaxed enough” in the tub, I imagine how good I will feel crawling into bed all warm and clean feeling.

Dr. Kennedy agrees. “Epsom salt baths are wonderful, but I would never advise someone to do something that I couldn’t manage to do myself,” she says. “I don’t have time for a bath every night — or even most nights.”

But get this — thinking of a bath as something that will help me have a better night’s sleep has actually helped me enjoy them more. Instead of stressing about not being “relaxed enough” in the tub, I imagine how good I will feel crawling into bed all warm and clean feeling. That way, even if I am only in there for a few minutes, the bath is doing its job (and the shower afterwards is just a rinse).

So, how do draw yourself a good bath for sleep? The important thing to remember is there are no rules. A bath is a soup made of scents. Just put everything in there that smells good, moisturizes your skin, and makes you feel fancy. Maybe it’s an age thing, but I am no longer interested in smelling like liquid cupcake. Give me rose, vetiver, tea tree — strong, cleansing scents.

Herbivore Botanicals' bath salts ($32, Herbivore) are truly lovely and Instagram-worthy. The Calming floral scent is my favorite, but the more Eucalyptus-style Detox is frankly just as good.

Another luxurious bath secret is to use cleansing oil instead of soap. Glossier’s Body Cleansing Oil ($18, Glossier) is an amazing and wallet friendly accompaniment to any soak, and it isn’t as drying as typical cleansers.

You can also go full bath oil and grab ThisWork’s Deep Sleep Bath Oil ($111, ThisWorks). The bottle also just looks beautiful and fancy. Very Parisian beauty queen chic.

Other fancy bath things? A great shower cap. My friends swear by the Shhhower Cap ($43, Shhhowercap). And of course, a fancy bathrobe that no one would ever actually buy for themselves. I have honestly never felt more like an adult woman than when I wear a velvet robe. Soma's Velvet Noir Short Robe ($60, Soma) is particularly luxurious.

Oh and yes, Arianna Huffington still takes a bath almost every night. But get this — when I followed up with her over email this November, she told me she “misses a night here and there.” See? Nobody's perfect.

About four years ago (long before my six-month sleep experiment) I started investing in adult pajamas. I’m talking full on Jess from “The New Girl”-style matching tops and bottoms. There is just something about taking off the day’s clothes and putting on a matching set of something stretchy or starchy and a little formal that really appeals to my Capricorn nature. Like clean sheets on a freshly made bed, a set of folded pajamas ready to go is a pleasure no one can deny. And taking a warm bath and then putting on a clean pajama set? Forget about it.

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Real talk: Gap, J.Crew, and Madewell all make great pajama sets. Everything Soma does is excellent, too — I have this Cap Sleeve Notch Collar Top and Bottom (top $23/bottom $25, Soma) and the Long Sleeve Notch Collar Top and Bottom (top $27/bottom $27, Soma). They are my favorite clothes that I own.

For something a little more, uh, sexy (though the full-length pajama sets have never been an issue in my house, wink-wink), I recommend the Everlane Silk Sleep Set ($98, Everlane). I can’t imagine anything better than these on one of those summer nights when it’s just too hot for clothes.

Finally, I need to say something about flannel pajamas: No.

Another sleep-related wardrobe item worth investing in? An eye-mask. I know, I feel silly wearing one, too, but they really do help. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I am less likely to reach for my phone if my eyes are covered. For that, they are worth the effort. The ShhhSilk White Marble Eye Mask ($32, ShhSilk) is really nice and comfy.

A mattress is a very personal and sometimes expensive choice, but obviously you need one you’re comfortable with. For what it’s worth, my mattress is a queen-sized Tomorrow Medium Firm ($890, Tomorrow), a new brand that offers a complete sleep system, including blackout curtains, comforters, mattress pads, pillows, sheets, and sleep trackers in addition to the actual bed. The mattress is firm, but offers enough cushion that you feel like your back is being welcomed into it. I also I love their Supima cotton sheets ($120-$160, Tomorrow) — they always feel super crisp.

I find routinely using the same linen spray has an almost Pavlovian effect, like how smelling pizza makes me hungry.

Speaking of sheets, good ones (constituted by your own price point and preferences), are essential. I have found that actual linen — the kind that makes you feel like you’re sleeping inside an Eileen Fisher caftan worn by Meryl Streep in A Nancy Meyers movie — feels the most luxurious to me. I can’t say enough Parachute's Linen Sheet Set ($169 -$189, Parachute). They’re a little stiff at first, but they soften up the more you wash them, and they manage to be both snuggly and cool at the same time. Also, they hold linen spray really well, which is a true sleep game changer (plus, they pair really nicely with Soma's Luxe Throw Blanket ($40, Soma).

So yes, let’s talk about linen sprays. If you haven’t invested in a linen spray yet, this is a call to action. Why is linen spray a good idea? Because people stink, and beds can get stinky, and it’s not fun to sleep in a stinky bed. Plus, experts suggest that certain scents help us fall and stay asleep. Also, for me, I find routinely using the same linen spray has an almost Pavlovian effect, the way the smell of pizza makes me hungry. Now, when I smell certain scents, I immediately think “sleep.”

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My favorite is ThisWorks Deep Sleep Pillow Spray ($29, Net-A-Porter). My sheets are soaked in it. I doubt I will ever get the scent out. But, ever since I started using this mix of Lavender, Vetiver and Wild Chamomile, I have never slept better. Start here and you will never not mist your pillows again.

Clean smells like The Laundress Fabric Fresh spray ($16, The Laundress). It makes your bed feel new, like you’re staying in a hotel or a rich friend’s guest house. And for the price, you might as well stay there all the time.

For a fresh but floral scent, try Kai’s room - linen spray ($56, Kai), which has rich, calming undertones. And the bottle looks really, really pretty next to a nice, clean bed.

The Travel Size Claudette Candle from Bijou ($9, Bijou) is also a nice way to make your bedroom have a signature scent. Plus, you can recreate the mood by bringing it with you wherever you sleep. For a bigger investment, go Diptqyue. They really are worth the price.

The whole point of sleep is to wake up feeling and looking refreshed. There are countless products on the market that claim they’ll help you do this, and even products that say they’ll help you look and feel great, even if you skipped sleep all together. The only thing that will actually work in that capacity is coffee, and for a limited time only, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a true substitute (in fact, Dr. Kennedy says if you really want a good night’s sleep, you should try to avoid caffeine all together — ugh).

Long story short, no product is as good as sleep. I think we all know that by now. However, good sleep, mixed with the right potions and lotions, is pure magic.

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At first I was skeptical of Herbivore’s Moon Fruit Superfruit Night Treatment ($58, Herbivore), but it has been an absolute face-saver. You definitely feel it on your skin (like a light mask), and it has both a tightening and moisturizing effect, which is rare for such a dense, creamy product. Also, the bold lavender color is just fun.

Many people know that Kiehl’s Mightnight Recovery Serum ($46, Kiehl's) is the sleep product to beat, and with good reason. But I’d also like to recommend Kiehl’s Overnight Hydrating Masque ($35, Kiehl's). This is the product you want to use when you maybe had an extra glass of wine and don’t have the patience to get through your full sleep routine. You will wake up the next day looking and feeling fresh and moisturized, no harm done. m/f's Night Cream ($48) is also rich and delicious, and especially hydrating during the dry days of winter. Aesop's Camellia Nut Facial Hydrating Cream ($49, Aesop) is great to slather on first thing in the morning — especially if you've skipped a step the night before.

I’ve found just putting on some whale sounds or a sleep playlist on Spotify makes a huge difference.

Something else I love is Aesop’s Breathless Massage Oil ($35, Aesop). It works really well post-bath, but it’s also fine to use on your shoulders and feet any night of the week. It literally smells like the fanciest spa. How could it not be relaxing?

Another way to tackle the physical effects of a lack of sleep is to hack to sh*t out of it. I’m talking meditation apps, sleep podcasts, playlists for sleep, and sleep trackers. I’ve found just putting on some whale sounds or a sleep playlist on Spotify makes a huge difference. One of my favorite playlists is called "Soothing Music for Dogs" (seriously). Dr. Kennedy swears by the Dohm DS Sound Conditioner ($50) for white noise. “It’s superior to the digital white noise that you’ll find on most [other] machines,” she says.

Also, both Huffington and Dr. Kennedy are huge fans of meditating. Headspace is supposedly great for meditation newbies, though I have never tried it myself. Maybe this year?

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As I mentioned earlier, before investing in all of this stuff, a trip to the doctor is a really good idea. They’ll be able to suss out underlying issues and tailor recommendations based on your medical history and other important factors. Fancy, good-smelling products are nice, but they only go so far. You’ve got to take care of your insides first.

Did I forget to mention that I sleep in a bed with my husband, two cats, and a farting dog?

But, once you've done that check-up and are ready to get the most out of your down time, you may want to track your Zzz’s to see which routines, medications, meditations, and products actually work for you. The Tomorrow Sleeptracker Monitor ($149, Tomorrow) syncs up with your phone so you know just how much sleep you’re getting every night, as well as the quality of that sleep. This tracker can also tell you how much sleep your partner is getting, which one of you is tossing and turning the most, and whose breathing patterns are the most erratic.

Which leads me to the next phase of my own sleep journey: The case for separate bedrooms.

Oh, did I forget to mention that I sleep in a bed with my husband, two cats, and a farting dog — all of whom snore? When I told this to Arianna Huffington (yes, I told Arianna Huffington about this very intimate detail of my life) she recommended I start small.

“[Pets] are easier to kick off the bed and onto the floor than your husband. Short of that, you could try industrial strength earbuds.” Yup, I'll definitely be adding those to my routine.

Cheers to sleeping like the fanciest baby in 2018!