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Sleep Hygiene

Written by Jocelyn Zakri MPH, RRT, RPSGT, RST

Did you know there’s a term for your bedtime rituals and nightly habits? Collectively, these behaviors are known as sleep hygiene.

Whether you practice good or bad sleep hygiene is up to you. But if you want to get a better night’s sleep, the answer often begins with improving your sleep hygiene.

What is sleep hygiene?

The rituals, behaviors, and norms you follow around sleep are referred to as sleep hygiene. Regularly pulling all-nighters, or sleeping in on the weekends so you can “make up” for lost sleep are both examples of poor sleep hygiene. Conversely, following a regular sleep schedule and avoiding caffeine late at night are good sleep hygiene practices.

Improvements in sleep hygiene offer an “easy win” in the search for better sleep, and should be the first thing you go after when sleep troubles show up. In fact, sleep hygiene education is an essential part of the cognitive-behavioral therapy used to treat insomnia.

Why is sleep hygiene important?

Good sleep hygiene ensures you consistently enjoy higher-quality, more restful sleep for a sufficient amount of time each night. Bad sleep habits, on the other hand, lead to poor quality and inadequate sleep.

You already know sleep is important. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article. Good sleep on a regular basis is critical to maintaining balanced mental, emotional, and physical health. It helps you stay focused during the day, regulate your mood, and feel more productive and functional on a daily basis.

What’s bad sleep hygiene?

The short answer: bad sleep hygiene is doing the opposite of any of the tips we discuss below.

But the answer you’re probably looking for is this: if you’re waking up unrested each morning, wake frequently during the night, feel tired during the day, or have trouble falling asleep at night, there’s a very good chance that you have bad sleep hygiene that’s messing with your sleep.

What’s good sleep hygiene?

The most important elements of sleep hygiene require the following from your bedroom:

  • Temperature – neither too hot nor too cold
  • Darkness – the darker, the better
  • Quiet – the quieter, the better
  • A comfortable place to lie down and stretch out

If you have those things covered, great news: you are most of the way to good sleep hygiene.

How to practice good sleep hygiene checklist

Most of us can benefit from improving at least one aspect of our sleep hygiene. Consider the following tips your guide to getting a good night’s sleep.

1. Know how much sleep you need.

If you’re going to change your habits to ensure you get enough sleep, it’s helpful to start by knowing exactly what “enough” is.

Throughout our lives, our sleep needs change, but as a general rule, adults in good health typically require 7 to 7.5 hours of sleep. Infants, children, and adolescents need more to differing extents. You can find out how much sleep you need here.

You may need more or less than the recommended amount if you are a long sleeper or a short sleeper. Short sleepers are people who require less than the standard recommended amount of sleep. Unlike people who are sleep deprived from getting less sleep, short sleepers do not experience daytime fatigue or many of the other negative side effects from sleeping less than the recommended 7-7.5 hours. They often do not feel the need to “catch up” on sleep, rather just operate at a baseline of less sleep. Research is ongoing but suggests that there may be a genetic component allowing short sleepers to function at a high levels with less sleep.

Conversely, long sleepers are people who require more than the recommended amount of sleep, often up to 10-12 hours of sleep. Long sleepers, similarly to short sleepers, are not suffering from a sleep disorder or experiencing abnormal sleep patterns; long sleeping is their baseline requirement.

As with anything regarding sleep, it is important to differentiate between normal sleep and a sleep disorder. Typically those that fall into either a short or long sleeper category do not complain of or experience negative effects from their sleeping patterns. If negative side effects do occur, consider talking to a sleep physician for diagnosis or for further information.

As you work through the following tips, set aside enough time for you to realistically get at least 7 hours of sleep. If you do this for a few days and still wake up feeling unrested, gradually increase the number. On the other hand, if you bound out of bed each morning after only 6 hours and still feel great, don’t worry about it. What’s important is that you feel well-rested – not that you get the “correct” amount of sleep.

The one caveat to this is if you are regularly sleeping less than 6 or more than 9 hours and still don’t feel rested, you may have a sleep disorder. Get step-by-step instructions for receiving a diagnosis.

2. Go to bed the same time every night.

Once you know how much sleep you need, set and follow a regular sleep schedule that provides enough room for it to happen.

Avoid bedtime procrastination at night, which is exactly what it sounds like. Set alarm for the morning and get up the same time every day, even if you had a bad night with frequent awakenings.

Keep your sleep and wake times consistent throughout the week – even weekends. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself experiencing an uncomfortable rebound effect come Monday.

Using a sleep tracker app or keeping a sleep diary can help ensure you’re actually following the sleep schedule you set.

3. Find a quiet place to sleep.

Your bedroom should be as quiet as possible. Some people find absolute silence uncomfortable, in which case white noise can be helpful for calming those anxieties or drowning out noisy neighbors or pipes. White noise machines are a bit passe, given the abundance of white noise apps you can easily download for your smartphone. Choose from nature sounds, guided meditation, or classical ambient white noise.

If you live in a noisy neighborhood or apartment building, read our article for tips on making your bedroom quieter. Strategically place furniture, invest in acoustical padding decor, or use more accessible items like earplugs, curtains, and pillows to block out noise.

Sometimes the noise is closer – and furrier – to home. If your pet is waking you up with a jingling collar, scratching, or snoring, consider kicking them out of your bedroom and offer them a nice cushy bed somewhere else in the house.

4. Keep your bedroom dark and cool.

The best temperature for falling asleep is somewhere in the low- to mid-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Maintaining a consistently cool temperature helps your body thermoregulate during sleep.

Keeping your bedroom dark also keeps it cool, by blocking out heat from sunlight in the morning. More importantly, the darkness convinces your brain that it’s still night time. If you live in a very light-polluted area (most cities fall in this category), get an eye mask and blackout curtains to aid in this goal.

Small night lights and illuminated clocks might be okay, but some light-sensitive people may find them bothersome. Avoid turning on the full light if you need to get up and use the bathroom during the night. Even a short exposure in the middle of the night can make it harder to get back to sleep.

5. Dedicate your bed to sleep and sex, and nothing else.

Having a dedicated place for sleep is psychologically important. We don’t think expensive mattresses and bedding materials are worth it, but having a comfortable place to lie down and stretch out is important.

Find the best mattress for you, so you can’t wait to go to bed at night. Invest in comfortable bedding and supportive pillows, too.

It is important to subconsciously connect being in bed with sleeping. Don’t read in bed or talk on the phone. Remove clutter and items that remind you of work from your bedroom as well, such as your computer. Instead, treat your bedroom as a haven for sleep.

6. Limit screen time before going to bed.

Some people have televisions in their bedrooms, although watching TV right before going to sleep (or worse, during nighttime awakenings) is not a good idea.

Looking up close at computer screens and tablets shortly before bed is actually detrimental to sleep. The light from those screens tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime again. The problem with these devices is that they all use blue light, the strongest wavelength of light that your brain perceives as sunlight.

Besides the intensity of the light, many of these devices find ways to either stress or excite you, whether they ping you with a frustrating work email or a happy Facebook notification. Keeping phones at a distance from your sleeping space helps to decrease the temptation to pick them up or check them if they are not directly next to the bed. If sleeping next to the phone or other electronic device is necessary, turn off notifications or other audible sounds to minimize distraction or awakenings not related to sleeping.

Try to stop using all electronics 1 full hour before bed. That includes your television, computers, phones, e-readers, and tablets. If you absolutely can’t tear yourself away from any of these items, at least turn on the red light filter.

If you’re wondering how to spend a full hour without electronics, just read the next tip.

7. Follow a bedtime routine.

Following the same set of activities each night, in the 30 to 60 minutes before bed, psychologically trains your brain to recognize it’s time for bed when it’s bedtime.

Your bedtime routine should be relaxing. The goal is to wind your mind and body down for sleep. Yours might include the following activities:

  • Turning off all electronics
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Aromatherapy
  • Meditation or visualization
  • Deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation
  • Reading a book by a soft lamp

8. Limit your daytime naps.

Pay attention to how much you nap during the day. Sometimes naps are essential for that extra productivity boost during a long day, but frequent naps or longer siestas can seriously interfere with nighttime sleep.

If you do nap, limit it to a short power nap of 30 minutes or less. Longer than that, and you risk entering deep sleep, from which you’ll wake up even groggier than before (and likely experience a tougher time falling asleep later that night).

If naps occur after 3pm, nighttime sleep may be affected. It’s best to keep naps, if necessary, to late-morning to early afternoon. Also, if there is an abrupt need for more naps even after receiving proper overnight sleep, consider seeking medical advice as there may be something else behind the increased need for more sleep.

9. Watch what you eat and drink, and when.

It’s hard to get to sleep on an empty stomach, but dinner several hours before bedtime is usually enough to hold you over. Some people sleep better if they have a small snack before bed, but you want to avoid large meals late at night. Large meals, although they can make us sleepy, often result in disrupted sleep a few hours later. Plus, sleeping after a large meal can make acid reflux worse in people who suffer that condition.

A more nutritious diet supports higher-quality sleep. If you want to sleep better, eat better. But when deciding on dinner and your bedtime snack, it’s especially important to incorporate foods that are known to promote sleep, while avoiding ones that do the opposite.

Fortunately, the list of the best foods for sleep is a long one, including yogurt, oats, nuts, milk, rice, cherries, and bananas, and much more. The list for bad ones is easy to remember: it’s the ones you should already avoid, because they’re too sugary, fatty or rich to be good for you anyway.

Staying hydrated is key to good health, but watch your water intake in the evening, too. Go to the bathroom one last time before bed, to avoid being woken up by your bladder.

10. Limit other substances, too.

Caffeine and alcohol both disrupt sleep. While alcohol may make you drowsy and induce sleep initially, it disrupts your sleep in the latter part of the night – preventing you from getting essential amounts of REM and deep sleep. On the flip side, caffeine is a stimulant. It amps up your nervous system, so your brain thinks it’s time to wake up instead of wind down.

Other substances, like marijuana and nicotine, can also interfere with sleep. If you’re a fan of any of these substances, limit your intake to avoid them interfering with your sleep. Try to stop using them 4 to 6 hours before you plan on falling asleep.

11. Exercise during the day.

What you do during the day, several hours before bedtime, can have a big impact on your sleep. Exercise improves your overall health, and it helps physically tire your body by the time bedtime comes.

However, strenuous exercise should be avoided at night, ideally 3 hours before bed. It energizes you, and the more awake you are, the harder it is to fall asleep.

For intense athletes, quality deep sleep is critical to the recovery process and maintaining their athleticism, so don’t ignore this no-exercise-late-at-night rule.

12. Get some sunshine.

It may seem counterintuitive, given our harping about the importance of sleeping in a dark room, but a daily dose of sunshine can actually help you sleep better.

Our sleep-wake cycle is closely connected to our circadian rhythms. Your brain relies on sunshine during the day to recognize it’s time to be awake and alert. The more natural light you receive, the more your body stays in tune to the regular day-night rhythms, and your brain learns to associate the darkness that comes in the evening with falling asleep. That’s why it’s so important to limit your exposure to bright light late at night from electronics.

Aim to get some sunshine in in the morning. Pair it with your exercise if you can. It will help wake you up, energizing you for the day, and make you more tired by bedtime.

13. Stay calm when you can’t sleep.

Even if you put all these sleep hygiene tips into practice, there will still be nights when you have difficulty falling asleep. When that happens, don’t panic.

If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, leave your bedroom and do something relaxing somewhere else. You don’t want your mind to associate your bed with frustration.

Do the same if you wake up during the night and can’t fall back asleep. In either scenario, don’t focus on the time, as it will just cause unhelpful anxiety. Read a book, sketch, or do another calming activity that can be done in low lighting. Do NOT turn on your electronics!

14. Experiment!

The right way to sleep is different for different people, and it may change for you over time. So just because you’ve found one optimal sleep regimen doesn’t mean that five years later your “optimal” won’t change. Even in the short term, optimal sleep hygiene practices can vary from week to week. For instance, pain or sickness may cause you to shift to a different bedtime.  

The best approach to sleep hygiene appears to be “strong opinions, loosely held”. Go whole hog with your hygiene practices and keep doing them every night, but be ready to change them when needed.

15. Get help when you need it.

Unfortunately, it is possible that you’ll implement all these tips and follow them dutifully, and still not experience improved sleep.

If this is the case, you may have a sleep disorder or another health issue. Keep a sleep diary and talk to your doctor to get help.

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