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I’m an early bird, he’s a night owl. No one’s getting any sleep. What do we do?

The question: My husband and I have completely different sleep patterns. I always try to turn in early, while he's a nighthawk and reads in bed with the light on. I love sleeping in darkness, while he can barely get up in the morning if our room is pitch black. I am also a much lighter sleeper than he is. We're both making each other miserable, and we're both losing sleep. Is there anything we can do, short of sleeping in separate rooms?

The answer: We all know how it feels the day after we've had a sleepless night. We're sluggish, we may struggle with facing the day's stresses, and we're less than sparkling in our interactions with others. While it's clear how the short-term effects of a poor night's sleep can leave us feeling, it's the long-term lack of restorative sleep that can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health. Sleep is essential for allowing the body to restore itself by building proper defences, and allowing us to function at our optimal physical and emotional levels.

It sounds like the lack of sleep is starting to take a toll on your relationship with your partner. Let's start with some simple things both of you can change to help improve your sleep quality. You've already identified a few areas that can be improved upon – without having to end your nights in separate rooms.

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First, you mention that you love the darkness. For many, this is an essential part of falling into a deep sleep. If he reads prior to bed, perhaps invest in a small night light that can attach to his book which is less bright than a table lamp. You could also try using a sleeping mask to block out light, allowing you to sleep and him to read. He'll also be able to wake up in the morning with the natural light of sunrise.

When one or both partners are light sleepers, it can lead to frequent waking at the slightest noise or movement. If this is the case, consider having separate sheets and comforters, so that when he comes to bed, there's less chance that the ruffling will disturb your sleep. If, as many of my patients describe, your partner is a "furnace," separate sheets can also prevent uncomfortable overheating.

Some patients also benefit from mattresses that limit the transmission of movement from one side to the other.

Many of my patients with sleeping problems see me because of a concern with snoring or disruptive leg movements at night; this may be a clue to an underlying sleep disorder that can be treated. If these symptoms seem to reflect your own, see your doctor so that the appropriate tests can be ordered, and hopefully a solution can be found.

For most couples, sleeping apart is not an ideal situation. But I did have one patient who recently came up with a creative solution. She would always be kept awake at night because her and her husband had very different sleep patterns. They were both feeling the toll of poor sleep and getting into many arguments.

They didn't want to sleep separately. But they found that on the nights that they were apart due to work commitments, they both slept better and felt refreshed. She and her husband made a deal: They would sleep together three nights a week and four nights separately. She found that this allowed them both time together and time for restorative sleep. As a result, they were better rested and enjoyed being together more in their waking hours.

This isn't to say this arrangement works for everyone. What it highlights is the importance of each couple needing to negotiate what works for their own relationship. Consider the immediate effects of poor sleep on your daily function and interactions. Respecting that you both have different sleep patterns can help you move toward a resolution. Hopefully, by talking through your concerns, you'll not only improve the quality of your health, but the quality of your relationship as well.

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Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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