Make sleep a priority and be intentional about getting the sleep your mind and body deserve. You need to be aware of the things in your life that are preventing proper sleep. If it is your children, then you need to deal with their sleep problems before you can tackle your own.
Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?
In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.
As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Colleen Marchi, Founder and CEO of The Magical Order of Brave Knights.
Colleen Marchi is a mother of three boys and a military spouse who has dedicated her life to getting sleep and helping other families find the sleep they desperately deserve. Her lifelong passion for sleep and the knowledge of its close ties to mental and physical health drove her to the field of psychology where she worked in schools helping young children reduce their anxiety and improve their sleep. She is the Founder and CEO of her company and the creator of an award-winning product The Magical Order of Brave Knights that helps children identify their fears and overcome them so sleep can be attained.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?
It is a pleasure to connect with you on this especially important topic, Tyler. Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience with healthy sleep habits, especially after years of interrupted sleep due to the separation anxieties my children faced due to their own special needs. As a parent of a child with Autism and one with chronic lifelong medical conditions, I know firsthand the importance of sleep and the devastating effects of not having it can have on a child, a parent, and the family unit as a whole.
Over the years, I have worn various hats and assumed many different roles: school counselor, military spouse, mother of three boys, entrepreneur, and author. Today, I am the founder CEO of Magical Order of Brave Knights, where we bring blissful sleep to children and parents alike through our bedtime kit featuring a Brave Knights plush teddy bear, book, and flashlight to help children fight the nighttime scares.
I have always needed quality sleep to perform well, whether it was on the softball field as a division 1 college athlete or in my profession as a school counselor. Throughout my career working with small children and becoming a mom myself, I quickly realized the deep connection between a child’s sleep and how that affects the mother’s sleep. The inevitable sleep loss that comes with motherhood hit me like a freight train and wrecked our entire flow as a family.
The facts do not speak well for us moms as we get far too little sleep and the restorative benefits. There is nothing more beneficial to our mental and physical health than sleep. I have witnessed the effects of lack of sleep on my own family and seen the destructive impact that it can have. It has obvious short-term implications, but it also can have long term ramifications on our lives.
After months of struggling to create long-term, healthy sleeping habits for my son and grappling with the impacts it had on my health, I have dedicated my life to helping families learn how to minimize anxiety in their children and bring back the sleep that they all desperately deserve.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?
During my husband’s last deployment, my youngest son was really struggling with separation anxiety. He has chronic medical conditions and sleep was important to his physical health. Our oldest son has Autism and solo parenting three boys who each had specific needs from me each day was challenging to say the least. That meant that not only did I need to be on my “A” game during the day, but I also really needed to sleep for my own mental and physical health each night. The time I spent asleep was literally the only time when someone did not need something from me. I needed that time to restore myself both mentally and physically so I could be ready to tackle another day of single parenting.
Night after night our youngest little boy would start to worry about his nightmares even before he got ready for bed. Our bedtime routine would take longer and longer each night as his anxious behaviors grew.
The cycle of anxiety starts with a worried thought, which then triggers a physical reaction like an upset stomach, a headache or asking for that one last drink to help quench their parched mouth. Then the physical feeling of a tummy ache brings about a behavioral change like avoidance of an activity.
After I was finally able to get my son to sleep, he would inevitably be up multiple times due to nightmares and come running into my room. Each night I would repeatedly walk him back to his room, comfort him and get him settled back into his own bed. I knew that he needed to overcome these fears and not learn avoidance behaviors by sleeping in my bed. This went on for a long time and we were both physically and mental exhausted. Finally, after weeks of my son struggling and trying different techniques, I thought about what I do when I have something that I am ruminating about. How do I let it go so I can sleep? I needed to find a way for him to do the same so he could finally rest.
I created a tangible way for my son to give up his worries each night by developing a product to help children identify their fears and conquer them. The first night my son slept through the night, I literally cried tears of joy and peace in the morning. My body and mind were able to rest, and I was elated when attaining healthy sleep was no longer a problem, I had to solve for him. He was able to articulate what was bothering him and I was able to listen to him. Normalizing conversations with our children about their feelings and emotions is crucial to their mental health. My experience is one that many parents, particularly mothers, endure for much of their children’s adolescence and has served as the driving force behind the mission of my company.
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
Sleep and mental health are so uniquely tied together. One of the biggest things that can improve our mental health is quality sleep, but sadly it is the first thing to go when we are worried or stressed. I have learned this deep connection personally and professionally. Not only have I worked closely with children as they navigated sleep anxieties as a school counselor where I put my master’s degree in psychology to use, but I have personally overcome insomnia.
I have always tried to make sleep a priority in my life and this was never a problem when I was younger. That all changed when I moved from a small town in Northern California to New York City for graduate school. Up to this point in my life I had studied this connection but had never experienced it personally. Nothing can prepare you for the awful reality of insomnia, the terrible feelings you experience each night as your mind races, and your body screams in exhaustion. I just wanted to sleep so badly but I could not no matter how hard I tried, and the more I tried the worse it got.
I knew why I was not sleeping; I was experiencing anxiety and I needed to find a way for my brain to cope and develop skills to help reduce my stress levels and relax my body enough to make sleep an option. I began a new routine and focused my attention on my sleep, and it began my lifelong passion to help others reduce their anxiety and get the sleep that is crucial to our mental health.
My passion for helping others through their sleep anxieties grew immensely when I began working in the school system on the psychology team as a mental health counselor to young children. Many of the children I saw were experiencing anxiety and having sleep issues that I knew all too well as an adult but couldn’t imagine enduring them as a child. I became incredibly motivated to find solutions for each child and their unique situations. We would work on techniques for them to alleviate their fears thus allowing sleep to occur each night.
This connection between sleep and mental health deepened for me when my youngest son began to experience sleepless nights due to fear and anxiety. I searched for a solution, but when I could not find anything to help him, I created something. I wanted to help him identify his fears, address them, and ultimately overcome them.
I created the Magical Order of Brave Knights which helps empower children to overcome their fears and bring back the sleep that they have been missing. Our award-winning product comes as a kit with three unique products that help open the dialogue for what is bothering the child. First, our main character is Sir William the Brave Knight he is an adorable teddy bear that the children give their worries to each night. Next is the magical part of the kit, it is an 8-image projecting flashlight that kids use to clear their room of anything that once scared them. This action puts them in control of their fears, and it empowers them to feel confident. Lastly, a storybook that highlights themes of courage, love, and friendship. When children learn to give up their worries, they develop problem solving skills that will lead to them not only changing their lives but one day our world.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Professionally, I read a lot of books that talk about mindset and our ability to change our outlook on life. The one that resonated the most with me is Permission To Feel by Marc Brackett, Ph. D, who is the Director at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor at the Yale Child Study Center. His approach to allowing children the permission to feel emotions is so in tuned with what I am working on. He speaks about the connections between our emotions and our actions. He believes and is teaching people of all ages that improving their emotional skills will improve their lives. He states, “Our center’s goal is to use the power of emotions to create a healthier and more equitable, innovative and compassionate society.” (Brackett 11)
Reading Dr. Brackett’s words challenged my ideas at times and reinforced them in others. Today, more than ever, our children need this to be included in their education curriculum. With stress levels at all-time highs and the constant changes that our children have endured this past year, finding words to put to emotions is paramount to their mental and physical health.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My favorite life lesson or quote is, “You can do hard things.” I was raised with two very tough older brothers and all I wanted was to be like them. From an incredibly young age I would push myself out of my comfort zone and try hard things even if I were nervous.
When one of my brothers died while serving the Army, his last actions on this earth were to give up his life to save others. He did something that many people would never be able to do: Captain Kevin Norman sacrificed himself so that others could live. Thankfully, most people will never be put in that position, but his sacrifice has been a constant reminder for me that life is too short and filled with really difficult situations.
The tremendous loss I have felt from his death, along with the reminder that you don’t know how long you have to live, has reinforced this idea of getting out of my comfort zone and doing the hard things. I remind myself every day, you can do hard things. Fear holds people back all too often and I have been there myself, but I constantly tell myself, “you can do this.”
When I was pregnant with my boys or when they were young, and my husband was not able to be with us because of his work and I was exhausted, doubt would creep into my mind about my ability to do all things that life required, I would tell myself, “You can do hard things.” When my son was having scary medical tests or procedures done and I would be helpless in the waiting room, I would remind myself that I could handle this. Doubt and fear can be the single biggest inhibitor to success and to positive thinking. Fear can hold us back from trying new things or unleashing our creativity. Fear has a way of narrowing our focus and making life smaller and negative.
The idea that fear and anxiety can hold children back is what drove me to create the Magical Order of Brave Knights. I would tell my son he could overcome his fears, he could face them, and he could do hard things. When he would sleep through the night, he would wake up and be so proud of himself. He would proudly tell me, “Mommy, I did it!”. It is such a powerful message for children to hear from us so they can believe it deeply for themselves.
Often parents do not give themselves the credit for the hard things they do. We celebrate the wins that our children experience but we do not give ourselves that same credit. It is especially important for women and mothers to believe that we can do hard things because we have accomplished so much. It is also a fantastic message to pass along to our children, as it will help them learn to be self-confident, empowered and not rely on someone else for their self-esteem. You can do hard things!
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?
Most adults should get between 7–9 hours of sleep a night, which is a general recommendation across all ages. Each group has unique experiences and challenges to this recommendation. For younger people they can function much better with less sleep or with inconsistent sleep schedules. For middle aged people finding 7–9 hours of sleep can be challenging due to their schedules with work and family commitments. For older adults they often have sleep disruptions which make getting the proper amount of sleep difficult. These disruptions may be from side effects of medication or illnesses, but they all influence sleep.
For mothers, there is a myth that the hardest part on their sleep is the first few months of their child’s life, but that is not always the case. Most moms do not get the recommended hours of sleep for many years and that chronic fatigue can be a killer. These unique distractions all have negative implications on our sleep and thus, negatively impact our physical and mental health. It does not matter what age group you find yourself. There will always be reasons why you are not getting the recommended sleep and they all have negative consequences. The real issue is to find a solution by making it a priority and doing the necessary steps to follow through with that plan each night.
Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10PM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?
Consistency is the best thing to strive for in a sleep routine. Our bodies should be getting between 7–9 hours of sleep a night but unfortunately that is not always possible due to life’s circumstances. Our natural circadian rhythms will adjust to our schedule if it is consistent. The ideal situation is that a person could go to bed between the hours of 10 pm and midnight and wake 7–9 hours later but if that is not possible, the option of going to bed later and sleeping later is the better option because the total number of hours is what counts.
The benefits of consistent sleep are far reaching. Sleep routines should be followed even on the weekends. The most challenging thing for mothers of school-aged children who are struggling with sleep is that the children are not often doing it on a schedule the way an infant does. Hunger wakes an infant up but when anxiety, fear or nightmares cause a child to have night wakings, it can happen on an unpredictable schedule. This inconsistency of sleep can wreak havoc on both the child and the parents’ mental and physical health, which could impact inter-personal and professional performance. The interruption of sleep when a child comes into their parents’ room at night is what causes a significant number of parents to allow their children to sleep with them, even though it disrupts the parents sleep patterns. The same is true for having a toddler toss and turn next to you. Consistency and striving to get 7- 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night is optimal.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35-year-old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?
The benefits seen from sleeping the required amount will be tremendous. First, from their mental health side our 35-year-old client will see a significant drop in her stress levels and anxiety. Adequate sleep decreases depression and helps elevate her overall mood. Her interpersonal relationships will also improve greatly as her outlook on life will be much better.
When there is something that is a problem in our lives such as not sleeping well, and we are unable to overcome it, the mind will focus on the negative aspects of events and situations, but the reverse is true when we are well-rested and have learned the skills to overcome obstacles. Under these conditions we see the positive in situations and we will know we can solve difficult challenges; things will seem much more possible rather than impossible.
Physically, she will be decreasing her risk for dementia later in life, increasing her memory, attention, and information retention. She will also be lowering her risk for developing other serious conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes as well as aiding her metabolism which will help maintain a healthy weight. The physical and mental improvements that come from sleep are widespread and will be seen and felt in almost every aspect of their lives. Sleep sets us up for our tasks ahead which helps with our concentration, memory, relationships, job performance, immune system, and overall health. Positive moods can affect every aspect of our physical health. Sleep is closely tied to the overall mental and physical health of our species in which the two cannot be separated.
Many things provide benefits, but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?
Sleep is the single best thing we can do for ourselves in a restorative fashion for our mind and body, however it is often overlooked by society. In fact, our society and social media often focus on the image of a woman and a mother who can do everything. The fact of the matter is whether we work outside of the home or work inside the home, we are not able to attain perfection. There will never be enough time in the day to attend to all that is on our plate. We cannot get 7–9 hours of sleep each night while we are focused on all our other tasks and then find ourselves comparing ourselves to others who seem to have it all.
Due to the repercussions of the pandemic, people have begun to see that the constant levels of stress we are under are hurting us and our children. However, it still does not receive the degree of recognition it deserves given the reality of its benefits or its consequences. It is my goal and dream to normalize sleep for everyone, especially mothers who feel like sleep is a luxury. This basic fundamental need should not feel like you are treating yourself, it should be seen as self-care and a necessity. Too many mothers feel guilty if they are taking time for themselves, but as we have all heard countless times on the airplane, “secure your mask before helping your child with theirs.”
I often wonder how much more we would all accomplish if we were approaching life not sleep deprived.
The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?
This is true for most adults. For women and mothers, it is more challenging because they oftentimes assume the role of the caretakers for their entire family. The result of this caretaker role creates a time constrained environment in which three significant obstacles present themselves.
1. Our children are interrupting our sleep; this happens nightly for years.
2. Anxiety, this is so common as parents, we can feel anxious about many things and they will all disrupt our sleep.
3.We have not prioritized ourselves and our own needs above the needs of our family.
Effectively removing these obstacles requires that women first help their child with their sleep hygiene. Make it a family affair and make a chart for how much uninterrupted sleep they are all getting. Let your children learn about the benefits of getting a good night sleep and make sure you are addressing any anxiety they may be experiencing.
Second, addressing our own anxiety is also paramount for our mental health, it is so closely tied to our sleep. Talking to a therapist, making sure to exercise each day, and meditating are all keys to lowering anxiety and stress. Lastly, prioritizing yourself and having some boundaries set to make your mental and physical health a priority is not always easy, but it is necessary for your long-term sleep health and overall well-being. If you are not taking care of yourself then you will not be able to take care of your family. Make yourself and your sleep a main priority in your life.
Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?
One hundred percent — YES!
When I was a child there were only a few television stations and we were not getting information thrown at us constantly; our brains were not craving that constant information. Therefore, we had significantly less distractions at night to keep us up.
Now, with our phones, social media and the nature of our digitally connected world, our brains have little time to wind down before bed. When I was younger you would never try to reach out to someone at 11 pm but now we send emails at that hour and even later. Which means our brains are still in work mode rather than preparing for sleep at that hour. While this hyperconnected world has made so many areas of our life easier it has taken a toll on the quantity and quality of our sleep.
This past year has also brought about many other challenges with the pandemic. Our stress levels have never been higher. Anxiety thrives on uncertainty and this past year has been nothing short of uncertain for so many areas of our previously “normal” lives. The last thing a lot of people do before they fall asleep and the first thing they do when they wake up is look at their phones. Most people use their phone as their alarm clock and even if it is on silent mode, the constant buzzing of alerts is going on throughout the night. Our sleep hygiene is worse now than it was in the past and our children are growing up with this pattern of events. It will be interesting to say the least to see how young people will answer this same question when they are middle aged.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.
- Make sleep a priority and be intentional about getting the sleep your mind and body deserve. You need to be aware of the things in your life that are preventing proper sleep. If it is your children, then you need to deal with their sleep problems before you can tackle your own. If it is your spouse or pet waking you at night it is also important to find a solution to help you achieve your goals. If your spouse is snoring or waking up frequently then you can work on proper sleep hygiene together. If it is your pets preventing the peaceful dreams that you long for then you may have to be a detective about it like I was. After I was able to help my boys with their sleep, I began to have our sweet dog waking me multiple times throughout the night crying. I thought she needed to go to the bathroom but after a week of trying different things, I realized our cats were coming into my bedroom to taunt her and she was crying for help! A simple baby gate at our bedroom door solved the cat intruder problem and we all sleep peacefully through the night.
- Your physical environment makes all the difference. Once you have removed the obstacles that are preventing you from sleeping, then you need to make sure your setting is appropriate. Your bed should not serve as a makeshift workspace — it should be only for sleeping. Set the temperature cool and keep the room dark prior to bedtime to allow your brain to release melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep. A quiet room or white noise such as rain, wind, ocean waves or a stream can help your mind relax and block out unwanted sounds like traffic.
- Remove any distractions such as your phone or television from your pre-bed routine. The blue light emitted from our phones is not conducive to sleep, it wakes our brain up. Set your phone to silent or to do not disturb so that you do not have interruptions during the hours you will be sleeping. Watching a television program before bed is not advisable as it can excite your brain rather than help it wind down. Instead try reading or listening to something quiet before bed.
- Move your body! Exercising provides physical and mental benefits for our sleeping habits. At the worst part of my son’s chronic illness, neither of us were able to sleep. He was up each night in terrible pain, and I was lying in bed next to him holding him through this awful agony. The last thing I wanted to do after a not so restful night was exercise, but I made it a priority to take a brisk walk or do a few minutes of yoga or meditation that allowed my brain to focus on something else for a brief period of time. I believe those moments are what allowed me to get through the hardest of times and allowed me to sleep when the opportunity presented itself.
- Allow for some time for this new routine to work. If you have not been prioritizing sleep and begin to make changes, do not get frustrated when it does not happen overnight. (Pun intended)
What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?
First, be thoughtful about your approach to this. I believe you need to give up what is worrying you. This is, again, the cycle of anxiety and a perpetual merry-go-round. A worried thought can keep you awake more than anything else and it leads to physical symptoms with more worried thoughts. Once you have given up those worries, it is time to work on relaxing your body.
I have learned many great techniques over the years of schooling and throughout my study of proper sleep habits but the one that works the best for me is one that I learned from my 8th grade science and drama teacher. One day in class we were stressed about an upcoming test in our science class, and the teacher could feel the energy from the class and wanted to help. He asked us all to lay down and he dimmed the lights. He told us to focus on our little toes and we all kind of laughed but he kept his voice calm and told us to feel our little toe tighten and relax then he told us to move to our entire foot and so on and he taught us to work on feeling the muscles tighten and relax throughout our body. He taught us meditation and relaxation techniques that were so simple and so effective. When my son was going through some biofeedback work with a pain psychologist, she began to work on this same technique with him. He told her he already knew how to do this because I had taught him.
Allowing our brain something to focus on rather than reeling is helpful and usually you will not get past tightening and relaxing your thigh before you fall back asleep.
What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?
I think that taking a nap is okay if it is 20 minutes or less, anything more than that and it will negatively affect your sleep wake cycle. I think there are days when taking a nap is unavoidable for people if they have not been sleeping well but it is not something that should be done regularly. It should be used as needed or if someone is ill and recovering. Daily napping should be avoided for most adults and the focus should be on the proper 7–9 hours of sleep each night. If you are feeling exhausted during the day, that is a great time for a meditation break or intentional breathing. It can refocus the brain and our energy and make us feel more alert after.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet Arianna Huffington, her work on sleep and the importance of it has been so inspirational. I love her mission to normalize the need for sleep and the work that she does to promote prioritizing sleep to people of all ages is fantastic. In her book, The Sleep Revolution she so honestly discussed her struggles with balancing a busy life as a businesswoman, a mother and entrepreneur and how the lack of sleep dramatically caught up to her. Her words resonated with me, reading her account of the physical and mental stress of not sleeping as I was reading my own journal from a few years ago. I love her mission and would enjoy speaking with her about her work and hearing her vision for how we can promote sleep to everyone.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow me on social media https://www.instagram.com/magicalorderbraveknights/
as well as read my blogs on sleep and mental health for parents and children on our website https://magicalorderofbraveknights.com
Our products are available on our website as well as on Amazon if your child is suffering from fear at night and disrupting sleep at your house. Sleep is possible as a parent and I am on a mission to bring it back to families. Sweet Dreams!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts and personal experiences on this important topic. I appreciate it so much and wish everyone Sweet Dreams!