For information – I am not a doctor. This is based on what I have read with my eyes and tested with my body. It’s from various sources lost over time so either trust me or feel free to validate/challenge with your own research.
You wouldn’t cook with a dirty pan so don’t try to sleep in a dirty bed. I don’t just mean sheets and blankets, although keeping them fresh and clean is certainly a good idea; I mean keep your habits clean too.
The bed is for two activities - sleep and sex
If you do anything else in bed you are training your body to behave in a certain way. If you sit up in bed to work on emails when you sit up in bed you’ll start to feel in the mood for writing emails. If you read in bed your mind and body will think your bed is the reading place. If you watch TV in bed, that’s just bad and wrong (that’s my opinion.)
Instead, do your emails at a desk and read in a comfy chair. Watch TV on the couch. When you get into bed you will either feel tired or interesting because your body will be expecting sleep or sex. It’s that simple.
It might take a few tries but stick to it and you may find it easier to fall asleep. You might have more sex too which is hopefully ok for everyone involved.
Still can’t get to sleep?
Be a baby
Babies sleep less well the less sleep they get and adults do that too. If we are overtired we sleep badly and begin to fear wakefulness and a cycle can start. So give yourself a break and go to bed early, really early, for a week. If you are secretly tired you might feel worse for a bit and sleep a lot and then it will level out. The amount of sleep we need varies but if you sleep 4-5 hours it’s actually the cognitive equivalent of being drunk. We do not drink and drive, we do not drink at the office or when looking after the babies… so we do not do these things exhausted if we can help it.
Aim for the standard 8 hours, more if you’re really shattered. Even if you don’t sleep for all that time the rest you get simply by being horizontal in a bed in a quiet room can be beneficial until your sleeping pattern improves.
If you can go to bed and get up at the same time (or within an hour either way) every day your body will feel ready for bed when the time starts coming around. But don’t worry, if you’re out or at a party your enjoyment will override the habit. This is a life enhancing not life limiting exercise!
Blue light is super stimulating and exciting which is why a lot of us are addicted to our phones, computers, tablets and TV. Switch off your devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Read, do some colouring in, listen to a podcast or the radio or stare out of the window. Be relaxing. I wouldn’t recommend listening to a heart wrenching true story about asylum seekers before bed.
Delicious booze and caffeine
As above, booze and caffeine are both stimulants. Some people find alcohol relaxing but it’s also loaded with sugar which might make you need the toilet in the night or, even worse, you could have a kind of sugar crash which wakes you up. Both will also make you feel dehydrated. I don’t drink coffee very often after midday and if I stick to a 2 drink limit I’m ok. Experimenting with your own limits will inform you what you can handle (I am a lightweight).
Weirdly, I also find eating a lot of garlic will give me a kind of garlic hangover and I wake up in the night feeling desperately thirsty. But maybe that’s just me.
A health professional told me that my middle of the night existential crisis nightmares could be wind. I hate to admit it but for the most part she is right. Just knowing it’s probably only my tummy waking me up makes me felt more relaxed. Parp it out and go back to sleep.
Hot and cold
In every couple there’s usually a hot one and a cold one. Dress appropriately and use more or less layers as required. Wear and sleep on natural materials if you can afford it. Synthetics will make you sweaty. They’re not very warm either.
I read somewhere that when the body temperature drops by 2 degrees it is a biological trigger for sleep. Sometimes I leave my legs out of the bed for a few minutes to cool down until I feel almost too cold. It makes getting under the covers feel super cozy.
For a while I felt desperate for blackout curtains until my clever sister suggested this is nonsense and now I agree it is. If you can nap in the sun you can sleep in daylight. Try forgetting about blackout and instead focus on a calm and attractive room. Make it tidy and clean with no weird junk lying around being annoying. We are humans and we are designed to sleep at the end of the day. Sometimes the end of the day is lighter than at other times of the year and that’s normal.
Getting exercise and being in daylight is essential for general good health, as is diet. So eat well, move more and go outside every day or as close to it as you can manage. This will all improve your sleepy time.
Tiny flashing lights, whirring electronics, lit-up or ticking clocks, a scurrying pet and all other slightly noisy or disruptive sounds or sights are not good and can be covered or moved to another room. My favourite bedroom had a bed, a couple of side tables in it, plus a plant. That was it. This kind of minimalism isn’t possible for most of us so put electronics away in a drawer and cover the clock or move it where you can’t see it. You get the idea.
If you are suffering from a rushing train of thoughts try:
- Getting out of bed, having a drink, a wee and reading for a bit, then go back to bed
- Do a puzzle – suduko, wordsearch or sums
- Listen to some white noise – rain, water, gentle motor sounds (there are loads of apps for this)
- Write down everything that is bothering you in headlines and tell yourself you’ll read it in the morning
- If you sleep alone and have a big bed, move to the other side
- Slightly open your mouth (which stimulates the body to relax)
- Count backwards from 1000
If you distract your brain from the anxious thought cycle by concentrating on something else your mind will calm down. I have tried all of these at different times and they all helped to varying degrees (an open mouthed countdown is my personal favourite).
What’s normal according to science?
Normal is relative but this is the general consensus based on what I have read.
- Around 20 minutes to fall asleep
- Waking up one or more times and falling directly asleep again
- Getting up once (to use the loo) and falling quickly asleep when returning to bed
- If you are sick, stressed or pregnant your sleep patterns may be affected
- If you need an alarm to wake you up you are not getting enough sleep
I am not a morning person and it’s not uncommon for the first word out of my mouth to be a swear because I am furious with another poor night. The last point above there rocked my world when I first learned it. Since then I have woken up before my alarm for short phases when feeling super healthy. I would not ever have believed such a thing was possible for me. Sleepy time routine is POWERFUL.
I read recently that trouble falling asleep can be an indicator of anxiety and waking up early can be an indicator of depression. Don’t use this as a diagnosis; just bare it in mind especially if you suffer from either or both of these anyway. It could be an early sign to take a bit more care so I think it’s useful to mention.
What’s normal according to you?
- I always make my bed, even if I am sick as getting in a made bed is lovely. Some people don’t do this. Do you like diving into an unmade or made bed?
- Some people experience watching TV or working in bed as a treat. I only do this if I am feeling very unwell. What’s a bedtime treat for you?
- I am quite tidy so my bedroom is quite plain. Some people like to surround themselves with a lot of stuff. What makes you feel comfortable?
- There are never pets or children in my bed. Some people love both very much. Do you enjoy innocent bedtime cuddles?
- If the dog is snoring he may need a new bed in the kitchen.
- If your mattress is hard it could be time to start saving or invest in a new one.
- If you are worried about work perhaps you need to build yourself a plan for coping or exit.
If you’re generally in good health mentally and physically, or even if you’re not, if you can’t get to and stay asleep you could simply be stuck in a bad habit. Eating is not a ‘skill’ and you can easily improve how you do it. It’s the same with sleeping.
Try creating consistent, calming bedtime habits and feel the results over time.
What works for you?
Co-founder, The Clean Sheet