It’s that time of year when the kids have gone back to school and we are approaching daylights savings. I know in my family, it’s been an adjustment to get everyone on a better sleep schedule after the late nights of summer fun.
Simultaneously, I’ve noticed in my practice that several of the people I work with have mentioned difficulties getting to bed at decent times, struggles maintaining an ideal sleep schedule, and a lack of feeling rested upon awakening in the mornings. Given this common trend around issues related to sleep, I thought before we head into the dark nights of winter, now would be a good time for us all to think about our own sleep hygiene.
What Is Sleep Hygiene?
I find the phrase “sleep hygiene” a little odd. For me, it conjures up images of bubble baths, toothpaste, and soap in the bedroom. While brushing your teeth before bed is a good habit and one that may help signal an end to your day, sleep hygiene isn’t just about cleanliness. Rather, it’s about all of the habits and agendas you maintain around your bedtime routine and night of sleep.
The definition of hygiene according to Dictionary.com is “conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness.” As cleanliness is only one aspect, it makes sense to think about all of the other conditions and practices surrounding sleep. Sleep may seem like a trivial thing. We all do it; it’s a natural process that should be easy. But easy isn’t always the case.
The Challenge of Maintaining Good Sleep Hygiene
Getting good sleep can be a challenge for many, yet sleep is truly a vital component to life. It’s fairly common knowledge that research confirms getting enough restful sleep is an important part of staying healthy and operating at your best. Unfortunately, some adults find it difficult to sleep well, and many have fallen into patterns that are counterproductive to obtaining the best rest possible. If this rings true for you, stop to think about your own bedtime routine and the conditions you maintain for sleep.
Many parents of young kids are familiar with the importance of a bedtime routine—they’ve likely established one to help their babies and toddlers learn to easily go to bed each night. Whether it’s bath, story, milk, and a song, or some other type of tuck-in ritual, we know that a good routine helps kids get to bed, and we know how important it is for them to sleep. Sleep helps children to grow, develop, function well, be attentive in school, and avoid crankiness.
While adults may not need as many hours of sleep as kids, rest is still important. Yet as we get older, have more free will, and are inundated with modern technologies and daily stressors, we often neglect good sleep habits and can consequently wind up facing things like chronic insomnia, poor health, irritability, lack of concentration, and even impaired judgment from neglecting to give our bodies the sleep they require.
Tips for Better Sleep Hygiene
Below is a list of some of the most common recommendations involved in developing and maintaining good sleep hygiene:
- Establish regular and consistent times for going to bed and waking up. This helps regulate your internal clock.
- Determine how many hours of sleep your body needs. Each person requires a certain amount of sleep to feel rested and to achieve optimal functioning while awake. Figure out through trial and error what your optimal amount of sleep seems to be, then strive to get this amount of sleep every night by adjusting your going-to-bed and wake-up times accordingly.
- Develop rituals before bedtime. Routine things like locking up the house, drinking a cup of tea, putting on pajamas, washing your face, and brushing your teeth can become rituals when performed regularly and consistently before bed. Your brain eventually associates these things with winding down and going to sleep. Having a regular routine can make it easier for you to feel tired and ready for sleep at bedtime.
- Pair bedtime with something that engages one of your senses. Smelling the same scent or listening to the same sound every night at bedtime can help your brain learn when it’s time to feel tired and fall asleep. Try spraying fragrant pillow spray on your sheets, lighting a scented candle, or using a scented eye pillow. Lavender is an especially relaxing scent. A sound machine with calm sounds such as the ocean, rain, or white noise may also be helpful.
- Use the bedroom only for sleep and sex. Using your bedroom to work or perform other activities will cause your mind to associate the space with activities that may conflict with the ability to sleep.
- Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep. Make sure your bedroom is a calm space with a comfortable bed. Determine what type of pillows, sheets, and blankets are the most comfortable for you. Some people like to sleep with little weight on them; others like heavier blankets. Keep the thermostat at a comfortable level. Block out any bright or distracting lights.
- Get sunlight in the morning or during the day. Circadian rhythms are regulated by light and darkness and are closely related to our sleep-wake cycles. Sensing natural light through your retina signals the brain to be awake and alert. In contrast, the absence of light signals our bodies to produce melatonin, a hormone that aids in sleep. The contrast between light during the day and darkness in your bedroom at night helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle.
- Put away your iPad and/or smart phone before getting ready for and into bed. Don’t check email before bed. Electronics can pose a threat to sleep, not only because they keep your brain activated, but also because their light can disrupt melatonin production and impede your ability to feel tired. It’s best to avoid electronics at least half an hour to an hour before bedtime. That said, many people unwind before bed by reading. If you read on your electronic device, be sure to dim the backlight or turn on “Night Shift.”
- Use relaxation techniques to release stress and tension. It is very difficult to fall and stay asleep if you are very anxious, ruminate on stressful things that happened in the day, or fixate on things happening in the future. Practicing mindfulness techniques, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and other techniques can help slow down your mind and create a sense of calm that will be more conducive to sleeping peacefully.
Routine things like locking up the house, drinking a cup of tea, putting on pajamas, washing your face, and brushing your teeth can become rituals when performed regularly and consistently before bed.
How to Wind Down Before Bed
Remember that it’s hard to benefit from these tools unless you practice and become familiar with them during times when you are not already feeling stressed, overly anxious, or experiencing insomnia. Try them often and as you become more comfortable with various techniques, they can be tools to help you get to sleep faster.
- Try warm baths or showers before bedtime. Bathing or showering can raise your core body temperature, which naturally induces drowsiness and can help you fall asleep faster.
- Eat a good meal a few hours before bedtime. Going to bed hungry or feeling too full can impact your ability to fall asleep, so be mindful of what and when you are eating in the evenings.
- Exercise regularly. Research shows that exercise decreases stress and contributes to better and more restful sleep. However, avoid rigorous exercise too close to bedtime if you find that it impacts your ability to fall asleep.
- Avoid physical and mental stimulation before bedtime. Stimulation, including suspenseful books, action shows/movies, and video games, can increase brain activity and heart rate, making it difficult to fall asleep. If you get into bed too soon after engaging in these activities, you may face frustration regarding your inability to quickly fall asleep, which perpetuates sleep disturbances. Your body needs time to unwind and slow down after engaging in these activities and before getting into bed.
- Avoid naps if possible. For some people, short naps can be energizing and rejuvenating. But naps, especially long ones, can interfere with sleep-wake cycles and sabotage the ability to maintain a regular bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon/evenings. The effects of caffeine can last for several hours, often creating a feeling of being wired or on edge, which can impact some people’s ability to fall asleep.
- Keep a glass of water by your bed. Having a glass of water nearby can help you stay hydrated and allow you to quickly reach for a sip of water when you wake up thirsty in the night. Keep anything else you may need to stay comfortable (chapstick, a sweatshirt if you tend to get cold, etc.) nearby and avoid getting out of bed for anything but using the bathroom.
- Hide the clock or get a projection clock. If you are someone who constantly looks at the clock, becoming frustrated with how long it is taking you to fall asleep and fixating on how little sleep you will be able to get, hide the clock or resist looking at the time. A projection clock that shows the time on the ceiling could be helpful if you feel you have to know the time. Constantly rolling over and moving to look at the clock interferes with your ability to relax and can create feelings of anxiety and stress that make it even harder to fall asleep.
- Try not to stress about or fixate on sleep difficulties. Fixating on sleep difficulties only increases the problem. Know that it takes some time, practice, and trial and error to develop optimal sleep habits and ultimately create better sleep. Be patient with yourself and know that good sleep hygiene doesn’t happen overnight.
If you struggle with sleeping well or maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, consider implementing these tips to see what might help. Be patient with yourself. It may take time to break bad habits and establish healthier ones, but with time and persistence, you can discover better sleep hygiene and ultimately train your body to get better rest.
Working with a therapist may help you find sleep strategies that work for you if you have a difficult time maintaining good sleep hygiene.
Hygiene. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/hygiene?s=t
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