Adopt Good Sleep Habits

"It’s very important to set aside enough time to get an adequate amount of sleep."
Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein

The Takeaway

  • It's possible to eliminate many minor sleep problems by creating a comfortable sleep environment, maintaining a healthful balance of nutrition and exercise, and engaging in relaxing activities near bedtime.
  • Keeping a regular sleep schedule—even on weekends—maintains the timing of the body's internal clock and can help you fall asleep and wake up more easily.
  • Even if real life stands in the way of achieving the perfect sleep routine, making just a few small changes can improve your sleep dramatically.

 

Old Habits Die… Easily

To hear Valerie talk about her sleep routine, you might think this single mom, who teaches high school math near Boston, has always practiced good sleep habits. "Oh, no," she says. "When I was growing up, my mom used to let me stay up as late as I wanted, and on weekends I often slept into the afternoon." Back then, and into her early 30s, sleep was easy for Valerie. Then the stresses of adult life—her job, parenthood, financial concerns—began to keep her awake at night.

She found herself lying in bed for hours sometimes, not knowing why she couldn't sleep, and lacking the tools and good habits to remedy the situation on her own. Frustrated by her inability to sleep even when she was exhausted, Valerie shared her concerns with her primary care physician, who helped her identify factors that might be keeping her awake at night. Together they came up with strategies to overcome many of these factors. For the first time in her life, Valerie had to plan for sleep and follow a sleep routine. However, she was desperate enough to try just about anything, and much of what her doctor recommended seemed easy enough.

Improving Sleep (2:50)
Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein discusses strategies to achieve adequate sleep.

What the Sleep Doctors Say

Sleep doctors recommend a variety of measures to help adults and children achieve adequate sleep. In general, all of these approaches are intended to help with relaxation as the desired sleep time approaches, to maintain a comfortable sleep environment, and to encourage a healthful balance of nutrition and exercise. Their recommendations include:

  • maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule
  • avoiding caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and other chemicals that interfere with sleep
  • making your bedroom a comfortable sleep environment
  • establishing a calming pre-sleep routine
  • going to sleep when you're truly tired
  • not watching the clock at night
  • using light to your advantage by exposing yourself to light during the day and limiting light exposure in the evening
  • not napping too close to your regular bedtime
  • eating and drinking enough—but not too much or too soon before bedtime
  • exercising regularly—but not too soon before bedtime

Making Your Sleep Routine Your Own

Experts acknowledge that most people find it difficult to follow all these recommendations; however, they also stress that it isn't typically necessary to do so. They suggest that individuals identify the factors that are most disruptive to their own sleep and then focus on altering particular behaviors and patterns to overcome these factors.

Valerie, for instance, admits that she doesn't follow all of the advice her doctor gave her. For example, she occasionally reads and does word puzzles in bed, which she knows sleep specialists typically discourage. "They help me take my mind off of the day," she says. Otherwise, she says she heeds her doctor's advice, which includes staying away from caffeine in the evening, avoiding stressful activities too close to bedtime, and keeping the television out of her bedroom. Knitting, reading, and listening to relaxing music and nature recordings are some of the activities she uses to transition to sleep.

Despite growing up with few bedtime restrictions, Valerie now keeps a very regular schedule. Even on weekends, she seldom wakes much later than her typical weekday wake time of 5:30 a.m. As a result, "It feels like my body knows when it's time to go to bed and when it's time to wake up," she says. And unlike in her youth, waking has become much easier, despite the early hour. According to sleep experts, a regular schedule not only tends to increase the amount of sleep people get each night, it can also improve the quality of that sleep.

An added benefit of Valerie's schedule is that it corresponds closely to her 13-year-old daughter's schedule, which means they have more time to spend together. "I love that I get to see her first thing in the morning, and make breakfast for her," Valerie says. She also hopes that her good sleep habits will rub off on her daughter, and that she will grow up with a healthy appreciation of sleep and its importance. "I certainly don't take sleep for granted like I used to."

To see how another working mom established sleep schedules for her children and improved her own sleep in the process, see Sheila's Balancing Act.

To learn how getting better sleep helped a night shift nurse improve her diet, fitness, and overall health, see Barbra’s Sleep Makeover.

To see how a behavioral sleep consultation can help people overcome sleep problems such as insomnia, see Healthy Sleep.

Find more tips to overcome sleep issues at Healthy Sleep.

When sleep tips aren't enough, or if you suspect you may have a sleep disorder, please see When to Seek Treatment in the Healthy Sleep module.

Resources

Epstein, Lawrence, MD and Mardon, Steven, The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep, 2007, McGraw Hill Books.

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This content was last reviewed on December 12, 2008