Is a bad routine wreaking havoc on your sleep?
What do you do each night before you go to bed? Maybe you binge a few episodes of an old classic, like “Parks and Rec,” or a new fad, like “Tiger King.” Maybe you curl up with a book and doze off a few pages in, before you can turn off the light. Or, if you’re like me, you get into bed and read news or watch TikTok on your phone. Then you pass out for a blissful night of zzz's—or so you hope.
But sleep isn’t something you can just jump into, says Dr. Rajkumar Dasgupta a.k.a., Dr. Raj, a sleep specialist and assistant professor of clinical medicine at University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. In fact, he compares it to a puzzle. “To achieve perfect sleep, you need all the pieces,” he says. “Having a routine is one of the puzzle pieces of getting good sleep.”
What’s more, keeping some level of routine and consistency in your nightly schedule will help you fall asleep faster and wake up feeling refreshed, says Bill Fish, a certified sleep coach and the general manager of SleepFoundation.org.
But what is a good routine, and how can you make one? Here’s the experts' advice.
The basics of a good nightly routine
It’s best to choose activities that you find soothing for that wind-down period before you go to bed. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, experts recommend focusing on calming (rather than active and stimulating) activities. Of course, brushing your teeth can (and should) be part of your nightly routine. However it’s helpful to include more purposeful relaxation in the routine as well, says Tori Van Dyk, an assistant professor in psychology at Loma Linda University in California.
These may include meditation, reading (though probably not the latest Gillian Flynn thriller), taking a warm shower, and other peaceful activities in dim light. Pick activities that are repeatable and realistic, so that you can maintain the routine you implement.
Set up your home environment for sleep success
It’s universally agreed that bedrooms should have very few purposes, namely: sleep and sex. Creating a place that is soothing and meant for sleep will help you make the most of your nights. Keep work, TV watching, and other unrelated activities outside the bedroom. That way, when you go into your room at night, your body will know that it’s time to wind down, Dr. W. Christopher Winter, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine.
While you might not realize it, even superficial clutter in your bedroom can negatively impact your sleep. The mind tends to race when exposed to disorder, Fish says. Research has shown that clutter can cause an increase in stress and negatively impact mental well-being, so tidy up a bit before bed when you can. At a bare minimum, Fish says to shut your closet doors each night. This will help keep your mind clear as you doze off.
Another simple measure to take: Dim your lights before bed, whether inside and outside the bedroom, Winter says. Researchers have found that exposure to bright lights at night can suppress melatonin, the hormone that triggers drowsiness, for as long as a 90 minutes when compared to people exposed to dim light in the hours before bed.
Room temperature is also integral to sleep. Even if you like to save money on energy during the summer by keeping your house warm throughout the day, consider dropping the thermostat in advance of bedtime, or opening windows to allow your bedroom to vent. Body temperature drops one to two degrees overnight and starts to fall as you approach bedtime, so keeping your space cool can help precipitate sleep. Researchers found that people who sleep in cold rooms tend to be more alert the next day, so not only will you sleep better, but your waking hours will also be improved with just a little climate control.
Put away your phone (yes, really)
You probably don’t want to hear it, but according to nearly every expert I spoke with, a good nightly routine involves powering down your phone, or, at a bare minimum, setting it aside. Give yourself at least 45 minutes between when you tuck yourself in and your last look at the screen, Fish says. “But I need it as an alarm clock,” you might be thinking. This isn’t an adequate excuse to dismiss the disruption that using your phone (or the temptation to use it that simply having it turned on may elicit) in your bedroom can cause, Fish says.
When you structure your night to avoid your phone for about an hour before bed, you’re likely to see improvements in your ability to fall asleep, as well as your overall sleep quality. This is because avoiding blue light, which is emitted by phones and other devices, will help stimulate your body’s production of melatonin.
Instead of mindlessly scrolling your phone before bed, create a routine that intentionally excludes it. Try taking a shower, reading, or having a quiet conversation with your partner, Fish suggests. Building these habits into your routine will make it easier to avoid reaching for your phone and help you fill the time between when you hit the hay and last scroll through Instagram, so melatonin production can go up and you’ll feel tired.
If you really can’t leave your phone outside the bedroom, use its settings to your advantage, Raj says. We often worry that we will miss an emergency if our phone isn’t with us. So if it is in the bedroom, keep it out of arm’s reach and use a feature like Do Not Disturb, which can be customized to silence all notifications or prompt the ringer to sound if someone calls three separate times. That way you won’t snooze through an emergency or compromise on sleep quality.
Choose nighttime entertainment carefully
Bringing the 24/7 news cycle into your home 24/7 doesn’t help with sleep, either. If you’re reading the news on your phone or watching the evening report, the light from the screens is only the first issue. The news itself is often stressful, so curbing your intake before bed may decrease stress levels (or at least not elevate them), which will help you sleep, Winter says.
Late-night Netflix aficionados don’t get off scot-free either. Netflix shows are “just mentally stimulating, you’re cognitively aroused,” Raj says. Think about how you felt at the end of a Stranger Things episode, for example—Raj says he couldn’t sleep after that cliffhanger.
If you prefer to reach for a book as you wind down, just make sure it’s made of paper (some Kindles emit less blue light, but still produce a low level). Reading on your phone might be fine during the day, but at night, you also risk popping into Instagram or Facebook while you use the device, or being distracted by notifications, Raj says.
Be strategic about calming a racing mind
If you’re struggling to get your mind to quiet down or if you have racing thoughts, Van Dyk suggests considering each item, and asking yourself, “Can I complete this task or solve this problem right now? [If so,] do it," she says. "If it can’t be done until later, make yourself a note."
Even if work or other obligations beckon, try not to give in. Keeping yourself on a consistent schedule is paramount to daytime productivity. Having erratic bedtimes and wake-up calls can leave you feeling less than optimal during the day. If you stay up late and sleep in on the weekend, getting back on track the next week can become even more challenging. After a few days, you start accumulating a “sleep debt” (as in, lost hours of sleep you may not be able to make up for) that builds up over the week, Raj says. In fact, it's best not to vary your sleep schedule by more than an hour. "We know that even when average sleep duration stays the same, a more variable sleep schedule causes people to feel sleepier the next day," Van Dyk says. Consistency is key.
If you’re still struggling with racing thoughts from your day, employing a nightly meditation habit, progressive muscle relaxation, or other techniques to relieve muscle tension are great options. Meditation helps by clearing the mind and forcing you to focus on just one thing. Stress might feel as though it's all in your head, but it manifests in your body, too, so targeting muscles and forcing your body to relax can help you wind down and sleep.
Get your partner on board
It’s well known that some people are morning larks while others are night owls, but what if you and your partner don’t line up? If you have different sleep schedules and habits, approaching the evening hours can become fraught. “While it may be difficult and uncomfortable, laying down the ground rules is paramount to ensuring a great night sleep for everyone,” Fish says. Talk about how you can respect one another at night, and go about getting up or going to bed without disrupting your snoozing partner. Explicit communication about certain rules, like when lights can be turned on and off in the bedroom, can be helpful, Van Dyk says.
What works for one person could be completely disruptive for another, so anticipate compromising with your partner. If they like the room warm, for example, but you like it cooler, find a way to strike that balance or get creative with bed covers. Even after an initial conversation, it’s good to keep communication about sleep and nighttime patterns open and continue to be understanding and supportive of one another, Raj says.
That said, there are some places where you shouldn’t be expected to compromise. If you and your partner are on set but different schedules, be cognizant of each other. The person later to bed, or earlier to rise, needs to go about their daily habits and routines with their partner in mind.
For those who are on the same nightly schedules, it's good to hold one another accountable, Van Dyk says. Many of the practices and behaviors individuals can adopt are also applicable to people with partners. “Commit to turning off electronics and dimming lights at a certain time, keeping laptops and phones out of the bedroom, and practicing nightly relaxation,” she says.
If you talk to your partner before bed as part of your routine, choose topics that won’t keep you up, and steer clear of anything that's inherently tense. To keep stress down, try not to talk about finances or family strife, Raj says. Any heavy or stimulating conversations should be avoided immediately before bed, Winter suggests.
Establish good habits with kids, too
If you have children, be sure to keep them on a schedule as well. In some ways, routine is even more important for them. Having kids on a consistent schedule stands to benefit both parents and the children. It will make it easier for you to go to bed in the evening, and having a routine will help kids' behavior the next day, Raj says. Plus, no matter their age, getting quality sleep will improve their time in school and learning, he says.
On a fundamental level, again, consistency is key. Like adults, it’s best for kids to wake at the same time each day, which will keep their circadian rhythm consistent, he says. And of course little eyes should avoid screen time immediately before going to sleep, too.
Having a pattern of behavior and way to wind down will help signal to them that it’s nearing bedtime. Consider using a ritual, like a nightly story, or brushing their teeth to cue bedtime, Fish says. Structure your kids routine to your advantage, to make it easier for you all to get through. “It’s helpful to put the more enjoyable activities like reading stories at the end of the routine, so kids have something to work toward,” Van Dyk says.
Positive reinforcement can be helpful throughout your kids’ nighttime routine. “Sometimes kids struggle to get through their routine, so it’s good to enthusiastically praise them after completing each step or even reinforce them with something like a sticker chart,” Van Dyk says.
Consider overlapping your routine with your kids, by doing certain activities together, like putting on pajamas, reading, or brushing your teeth, Van Dyk says. Parents are likely to go to bed later, but that doesn’t mean some of the steps leading up to that can’t be the same for everyone.
Kids’ nighttime routines don’t have to be long and elaborate. “For really young children, it may only be 15 minutes,” Van Dyk says. “For older children, the routine may be 30 to 60 minutes.”
Your own behavior and approach to nighttime can be used as a helpful model to your kids. Rather than using “staying up late” as an incentive or treat for yourself or them, try to wake up on time, go for a walk, or spend time outside as a reward, Raj says. Implementing this behavior in your life will make your days better, and modeling a healthy nighttime routine will benefit everyone in the short and long term.
Give yourself time to settle in to a new routine
Everyone stands to improve their nightly routine and habits and reap benefits. Sleep is a transition, not the flip of a switch.
Given the individual nature of sleep, it’s almost impossible to make blanket recommendations that will appease everyone. Regardless of what you do, give your body and mind time to adjust. “You may not notice an immediate difference in setting a routine, but the more consistently you engage in the routine before bed, the more that routine will become associated with sleep,” Van Dyk says.
I promise, the experimentation and patience will be well worth the effort. Plus, who couldn't use a little more relaxation and time away from the news these days?