The Rumor: If you can’t fall asleep, staying in bed in the dark will help you nod off faster

If you’re reading this at 3 a.m. because you can’t sleep, you’re not alone. More than 60 million Americans suffer from insomnia. But what's more conducive to nodding off than reading about insomnia online? Should you stay in bed until The Sandman shows up?

The Verdict: It's OK to get up if you can't fall asleep

Restricting the amount of time you spend lying in bed may be one of the best weapons against conditioned or so-called "learned" insomnia. This kind of sleeplessness is caused by anxiety that comes from trying too hard to doze off when you can’t. Sound familiar? It applies to those who wake up three or more times per week for at least a month and stay awake for more than 30 minutes at a time.

"The harder a person tries to sleep, the harder it becomes," says James Findley, Ph.D., clinical director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.

According to Findley, lying in bed when you’re alert strengthens the association between being in bed and not sleeping. Over time, the bed becomes a cue for being awake. How’s that for a nightmare?

Insomnia goes beyond having bags under your eyes. Nearly 15 percent of all Americans suffer from this sleep disorder, which can cause long-term health damage. According to a U.S. National Health Interview Survey, sufferers are twice as likely to have heart problems, and five times more likely to have mental health issues like depression or anxiety. Their daylight hours are dysfunctional too: Insomniacs suffer from fatigue, decreased activity levels, difficulty in concentrating and even gastrointestinal distress, says Findley.

The good news? It's possible to learn how to wind down. "Schedule is everything!" says W. Christopher Winter, MD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and director of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. Here’s more advice on how to get back to sleep:

  • If you’re lying awake for more than 30 minutes, it's time to get up. "People like to fool themselves into thinking that if they're lying in bed, at least they're 'resting,'" says Findley. "Someone who insists on staying in bed during awakenings is perpetuating the problem."
  • Keep the lights dim.
  • Do something quiet and relaxing before attempting to sleep again.
  • Before you turn in for the night, stay up for an extra 30 minutes past your usual bedtime for a few days.
  • Avoid stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, booze or exercise close to bedtime.
  • Take a warm bath before turning in.
  • Keep your bedroom at a comfy temperature.
  • Get up at the same time every day, regardless of how little nocturnal sleep you got.

Promises Winter, "As long as you stick to a schedule and avoid naps and sleeping in during the day, you will sleep again. Everyone sleeps."


About our partners' commitment to health >