Welcome to the five star sleep spa! Luxury hotel holds 'enforced relaxation' weeks where exhausted parents can recuperate
Specially devised menus include foods rich in tryptophan, an amino acid said to aid sleepSpa offers meditation, tai chi and massage to assist relaxationYoga sessions help quiet the mind and the body prepare to restChamomile tea replaces alcohol in room's mini barCourse held in luxury Almyra hotel in Paphos, Cyprus
20:07 GMT, 11 October 2012
In a packed restaurant my baby is screaming at the top of his lungs. Grabbing fistfuls of pasta, he fires the red mess into my lap. Nauseous with exhaustion, I glare at my oblivious partner who is asleep with his head in his hands. The frosty waitress drops off the bill and the tears start again – mine, this time.
Too tired to function, unable to sleep, we have joined the ranks of British parents operating on empty and suffering for it.
Lack of sleep is one of the most common complaints of our time. Four out of five people in Britain suffer disturbed or inadequate – so-called ‘toxic’ – sleep, and I’d put my last Nytol on the fact that the one snoozing away merrily hasn’t got kids.
Luxury: The five star Almyra hotel manages to balance contermporary design with family-friendly comfort
Since the birth of my baby last December I have been averaging four hours’ sleep a night. Given that I was breastfeeding for the first year, the nightshift inevitably fell to me – and I found myself up and down all night each time my tiny vampire woke to feed – sometimes every hour or more.
I didn't need Supernanny to tell me that he wasn’t hungry – he was a habitual waker and a pesky snacker – but at 4am, I’d take the shortcut and feed him back to sleep.
A spate of infections and teething only added to my sleep debt, while regular trips to the U.S for my partner Pete's job meant weeks of sleepless nights as both jet-lagged baby and I got used to the eight-hour time difference.
Then came the hard part. During the first few months after birth, I could drop back to sleep easily after getting up. Then, one night, I couldn’t. After a 3am feed, I lay awake, mind churning, until the first light crept through the curtains and stirred my little sleep thief for the day.
After that, the very thought that I might not get back to sleep kept me awake night after night.
The insomnia was the final insult: never had I been more sleep deprived, yet I couldn’t sleep. How could this be
Luxury: The five star Almyra hotel manages to balance contermporary design with family-friendly comfort
According to Chris Idzikowski, Director of Edinburgh Sleep Clinic, the link is not uncommon. The main times women become insomniacs (defined as not able to sleep when you want and being affected by that the following day) are during menopause and post-childbirth.
DID YOU KNOW
Four out of five people in Britain suffer disturbed or inadequate – so-called ‘toxic’ – sleep
He explains: ‘Sleep is learned according to our cultural environment. The problem is that through certain repeated behaviour changes, you can learn to remain awake.’
A friend once told me how she’d left her baby in its pram in Budgens for two hours before she remembered and ran back. At the time I thought she’d lost her mind; with hindsight I empathised. I had become terribly forgetful (we jokingly dubbed this forgetfulness ‘mumnesia’, but it was very irritating), and I could hardly concentrate long enough to read the back of a shampoo bottle.
On bad days I would find I slurred my words, and my bottom was expanding out of control, thanks to the disruption in appetite hormones caused by poor-quality sleep. My partner was suffering too.
Practically narcoleptic during the day, he’d fall asleep at his desk, at dinner, on trains.
Room with a view: The bedrooms at the Almyra look out on to the picturesque coastline of Paphos
Ultimately though, it was the utter transformation of my personality that had the most monumental effect.
Once known to friends as Pollyanna, I became her evil twin: negative and carping. My partner, who renamed me Jekyll, found his every misdemeanour rendered me inconsolable. Exhaustion is a trigger in those vulnerable to post-natal depression, and I was sinking ever closer. My coping mechanism was kaput, and something had to change.
DID YOU KNOW
The time you eat is the most important factor: any late meal will disrupt sleep
Salvation is often found where one least expects it, and ours, as it happened, was found in the form of a sleep clinic located in the Cypriot town of Paphos.
The ‘Week of Sleep for Exhausted Parents’ is a seven-night programme offered by the Almyra hotel, which claims to restore balance to frazzled parents by providing the right conditions for healthy sleep.
There’s an excellent creche, but thanks to the generosity of grandparents, we could go it alone.
Arriving at the elegant beachfront boutique hotel had an instant tranquillising effect. Its whitewashed walls and photogenic lines overlooked the shimmering Med, and our room was minimalist and restful – enormous bed, floor-to-ceiling sea view.
A holistic routine of yoga, meditation, milk baths and massage awaited us, followed by dinner: a soporific set menu created by head chef Nicos and his team of nutritionists.
Food for thought: The dining menu during the sleep spa was geared towards quality rest – so no red meat or simple carbs and plenty of whole grains, lean white meat and fish
Meals contained foods rich in tryptophan – an amino acid found in turkey, seafood and bananas that is thought to promote sleep – lettuce (containing lactucarium, a nervous system sedative) and dairy, as the calcium and tryptophan combined are thought to increase melatonin production.
Hard-to-digest red meat and quick-boost carbs (potatoes, bread) were out, as were caffeine and alcohol.
Whatever Nicos was eating, we were happy to go along with it. A father in his 50s, he was tanned and youthful (Gordon Ramsay, pay attention: all that cortisol is giving you lines). According to Dr Idzikowski though, the link between nutrition and sleep is scarce.
He believes that the time you eat is the most important factor: any late meal will disrupt sleep. Whatever, that first night, we ate king prawns with seaweed followed by salmon and quinoa.
The fact that we clandestinely demolished a bread basket and snuck in an after-dinner drink wouldn’t matter, would it
R&R: The spa, set at the far end of the hotel's grounds, was a place of calm where we would practice yoga or enjoy relaxing massages or sessions of tai chi or meditation
Actually, it would. The champagne cocktail came back to haunt me at 3am as my liver worked overtime. Lying awake, head pounding, a rogue thought crept into my mind: if I didn’t sleep here, when would I
Guilt at sabotaging the routine and the pressure to sleep were too much. I battled with my busy brain for hours. My partner on the other hand had no trouble winding down, bread and booze be damned.
DID YOU KNOW
Massage aids sleep by opening blood vessels to the hands and feet to allow the body to cool its extremities – something that happens naturally before sleep
He snored gently until 9am while I lay rigid to avoid waking him.
At home this would have been enough to send me into dark despair. Here though, with no more to do than pad around in a robe, I could see the relative insignificance of my sleep issues.
The tensions of the night were further soothed by a milk and rose petal bath (which we vowed to recreate back home with Cow & Gate) followed by a massage side by side in a tranquil room overlooking the water.
The soporific effect as we drifted in and out of sleep to the whisper of the ocean was undeniable, but would it help us to sleep back in the real world
According to Dr Idzikowski, it would. ‘Massage is great for sleep. One of the things the brain does as we try to sleep is to reduce the core temperature by opening the blood vessels to the hands and feet. The massage helps set the body up for what the brain would do anyway.’
Natural beauty: The hotel is in Paphos, a town popular with tourists in miid-summer. Out of season though it is utterly tranquil – you will have the place to yourselves
A flexible body with healthy blood flow aids sleep too, and here yoga can help. We convened on the deck for our first session and met perky instructor Rachel. The yogic equivalent of the Duracell bunny, she was also a master in reiki and scuba and teaches tai chi, qi-gong and aerobics.
She’s a psychologist and mother too, and had a Maggie Thatcher approach to sleep, existing happily on four hours and declaring the eight-hour theory ‘bull****’.
As it happens, Dr Idzikowski agrees (more politely), saying between five and a half and nine and a half is normal. ‘It’s when a person gets less than their constitution demands that they suffer,’ he says.
A busy mind is the enemy of sleep, explained Rachel, and yoga brings body and breath awareness that calms nerves and stills the mind. We learned exercises to use if sleep remains elusive, the theory being that it is impossible for the mind to be overactive if it is occupied: breathe in for a count of four, out for six. Repeat.
Meanwhile, we relaxed each muscle in turn by tensing and releasing, paying particular attention to the areas where we tend to tense up: brow, jaw, buttocks, feet. These were so effective that Pete fell asleep halfway through the first sequence.
Elsewhere though, Rachel had a lot of work to do. Pete couldn’t touch his knees, let alone his toes and I was wound up like a Brillo pad.
Soothing: The view from the spa where we would have our treatments, milk bath and yoga classes
As we contorted our enervated bodies I struggled to focus. Rachel encouraged us to empty our minds; I wobbled out of my tree pose.
Pete, on the other hand, had no such problems decompressing. He quickly found his comfort zone: corpse pose. A tell-tale purr drifted over. This relaxation thing had worked… for him.
During the next few sessions Rachel focused on intense meditation using principles of tai chi and qi-gong. We started out cynics, but after rhythmic breathing, limb-swinging and channelling Qi (life-force), we became evangelists. According to Rachel, we used reiki techniques to ‘stir’ the energy in the room. I finally managed to lose myself in the moment, and by now was eagerly anticipating our reiki treatment.
In actual fact, the reiki session was the only element that left me cold. The therapist’s hands hover over the body, apparently channelling healing energy from the universe, but I felt nothing – and thanks to the eye mask I was wearing, I saw nothing either.
It is said results are best felt after multiple sessions, and even then they are subtle (a euphemism for non-existant), but my dear therapist could have been reading Hello! in the corner for all the good I felt it did. The 20-minute doze I snatched in the sunny treatment room was, however, very refreshing.
That last night, I panicked as I saw that Pete was yet again asleep before I’d finished brushing my teeth. I slipped into bed in a jitter.
Usually I would lie wide-eyed for at least an hour, but this time, I tried Rachel’s techniques. Sure enough, the process tore my mind from furious forward-planning and I drifted off to sleep before I’d untensed my toes. Progress indeed.
So did the sleep retreat work The peaceful paradise is no panacea and back home the pressures of real life were waiting for us.
Time for some sun: Around that gruelling schedule of relaxation there was plenty of time for sunbathing, swimming, reading or playing tennis at the hotel
But the sleep we got there was deep and intense, which Dr Idzikowski says is the body’s way of quickly repaying its sleep debt. We exercised and ate healthily. The maroon circles under my eyes faded; Pete’s had disappeared altogether. He looked ten years younger.
A month later, the bags had returned, but so had my joie de vivre. Our exhaustion meant we had lost all perspective. Focusing on our sleep in a healthy way allowed a shred of that back.
It’s not the end of the world to be deprived of sleep in the short term. We will sleep tomorrow, next week, next month. It may seem as thought your world is crashing in, but for centuries parents have tolerated the sleep deprivation of the infant years. If they didn’t, as Dr Idzikowski sensibly puts it, the human race wouldn’t survive.
Surprisingly, Dr Idzikowski was almost as enthusiastic as I was about the idea of a sleep spa. ‘It takes the sufferer out of their usual sleeping environment, which often immediately makes them sleep better, simply as a result of changing the conditions,’ he says (he’s right: when I wasn’t anticipating a cry at any moment, I was better able to sleep).
‘And passing control to someone else takes the issue of sleep out of the sufferer’s hands.
'Breaking that habit of waking during the night can help you reset your sleep, meaning when you go home you can start afresh, free from the issues that were causing your insomnia' he says.
So could it be a quick fix for sleepless parents Not without homework, he says. ‘Practise meditation and yoga, recreate the retreat with baths and massage, and you should see effects.’
How deliciously self-indulgent. A life of warm baths and meditation in our serene sleep-haven, no mention of teething or tantrums.
The very thought is enough to send me off to the land of nod. There’s just one problem: who’s going to tell the baby
Visit almyra.com. The Daily Mail flew to Cyprus with Cyprus Airways.