Parents learn early on that a bedtime routine helps children settle down and ease into sleep. Can the same techniques we use on our kids help us grown-ups settle down for the night, too?
They absolutely can, say sleep experts. And for anyone having trouble falling asleep, modifying your pre-sleep rituals is one of the easiest ways you can improve your sleep habits.
“Our bodies are built to go to bed when the sun goes down and wake up when the sun comes up,” says Shelby Harris, Psy.D., director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “In modern-day society we don’t have good cues to help us figure out ‘OK, it’s bedtime’ [or] ‘It’s time to wake up.’ It’s these cues that help us to release certain hormones such as melatonin, which help us fall asleep.”
So, what's the adult version of rocking and lullabies? Here’s a three-step plan to boost your sleep success.
Good: Turn Off All Devices
Ninety-five percent of Americans look at some type of screen in the house before they go to bed, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Baby boomers and Generation X’ers are most likely to watch television before bedtime, while half of Generation Y and Z’ers use the Internet within an hour of hitting the hay.
Unfortunately, the light that comes from your television, laptop and cellphone confuses your body’s internal clock, says Harris. “That blue light messes with melatonin production way more than a full-spectrum white light,” she says. For optimal sleep, turn off the technology an hour before bed and give the melatonin a chance to work its magic.
Better: Focus On Relaxation
Stop thinking of sleep as an on/off switch. You have to gradually power down, according to Harris -- and creating a relaxing nightly routine can help you do just that. Whether it’s moisturizing your skin, knitting or listening to music, if you repeat the same sequence of calming activities often enough, your body will begin to identify them as sleep cues. Whatever routine you end up choosing, make sure it starts outside of the bedroom, with crawling into bed being the last step in the process.
“There should be no reading in the bedroom,” says sleep expert Robert Oexman, DC, director of the Sleep to Live Institute. “Thirty minutes before [bedtime], focus on getting ready for bed. Dim the lights, brush your teeth, pray, meditate, do some light stretching. All of these prepare your body for sleep.”
If you find yourself having trouble falling asleep, stop staring at the ceiling and instead... get up. But don’t turn on the television or post an “insomnia stinks” message to your Facebook page. Instead, keep the lights dim and repeat the relaxing elements from your sleep routine. “When you finally get sleepy, then you go to bed,” says Harris.
Best: Don’t Sleep In
Even if you slept horribly, don’t use that as an excuse to hit the snooze button a few times. “If you sleep in, it only serves to mess you up the next night or the night after,” says Harris. And that goes for weekends as well as weekdays.
“There’s this phenomenon of ‘Sunday night insomnia,’” says Harris. “A lot of people get it. You’re anticipating going to work, which is one reason. But the bigger reason is that people sleep in on Saturday and Sunday. So when it’s time to go to bed, you actually haven’t used up your battery enough and been up enough hours to be able to go to sleep.”
If you have trouble sleeping at night, skip the daytime nap as well. Just as with a toddler you’re trying to coax into bed early, if your body isn’t tired enough, no bedtime routine will make it want to go to sleep.