Sure, without a bedtime routine, you will eventually fall asleep. But who knows how long that will take—or how well you will actually sleep when the lights go out.
“Most of us cannot sleep on command, but routine helps the brain know that it’s preparing for sleep,” says Rebecca Scott, research assistant professor of neurology at the NYU Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center—Sleep Center. “Our sleep system, along with most other neurophysiological systems, likes predictability and consistency.”
Why? Because predictability and consistency are boring. It’s calm. “Routine implies safety,” says Dr. Rafael Pelayo, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. “It’s why we read kids the same story every night.”
Here are six tips to creating a bedtime routine that will have you waking up feeling better. Remember, the key to these tips is making them part of your routine—so no giving up after two nights! Pelayo notes that some people need a few weeks or even a couple of months for their bodies to really cement a routine.
1. Give yourself time to decompress from your day
“One of the top mistakes that women make is that they fail to take time to themselves that they need to wind down and decompress from their day,” Scott says. “Women are under overwhelming pressure to excel in all areas of their lives—to be the perfect mother, worker, daughter, partner, and struggle with balancing or even recognizing their own needs.” But to go to sleep, you need to. “The brain is preparing for sleep about two hours before our actual bedtime. We literally go from billions of neurons firing up all day to keep us alert, active and engaged, and that waking system has to slowly come down to allow the sleep system to take over.”
Dr. Peter A. Fotinakes, medical director of the St. Joseph Hospital Sleep Center, recommends his patients to set an alarm an hour to two prior to their expected bedtime —and that they use it to remind them to wind down from the day. Do something you truly enjoy and find relaxing. It could be spending some time with your partner or family, taking a “me” break, reading or even watching TV.
2. But don’t wind down with your gadgets
If you do decide to catch up on your favorite show, don’t do it on your computer or tablet. “Generally, the TV is far enough away from the eye and does not give off the same type of light that other hand-held devices emit, Scott says. Now more than ever we know the impact of blue light on sleep quality and alertness, and we know that even just a few seconds of exposure from a blue light-emitting device an hour before bed can disrupt the melatonin rhythm, a rhythm that is so critical to helping us fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed.”
3. Eat a light, pre-bedtime snack (if you’re hungry)
While heavy foods and big meals or snacks consumed right before bed can disrupt sleep, the greater nighttime food issue facing many women is hunger, Fotinakes says. “In our perpetually dieting world, it’s not uncommon to lie in bed hungry, but not wanting to eat in an effort to save calories. However, hunger is stimulating and fragments sleep,” he says
Sound familiar? Go ahead and eat a light snack before bed, preferably one that is low in fat, which can spur nighttime acid reflux. “Eating a light carbohydrate or protein snack prior to bedtime will stave off hunger without causing you to crash and awaken later in the night,” Fotinakes says. Possible snack choices include an apple, slice of lean turkey or a cup of yogurt.
4. Take a warm bath two to three hours before bed
According to research from Cornell University Medical College, a nighttime drop in core body temperature increases one’s chances of both falling asleep and enjoying the coveted deep layers of sleep.
Interestingly, one of the best ways to trigger a drop in your body temperature is to raise it two to three hours earlier by taking a warm bath, Scott says. When your body senses the increase in core temp, it responds by dilating your blood vessels and directing blood flow toward your skin, which quickly releases heat. If you find yourself in need of some extra relaxation, you can also try adding some lavender oil to the water.
5. Don’t get into bed until right before it’s time to sleep
You’ve probably heard the saying that your bed is for sleep and sex—and that’s it. But even those extra hours spent reading or watching TV before sleep can add up. “The more time you spend in the bed before you sleep, the more your body gets used to being awake in bed,” says Pelayo.
He recommends spending any time winding down before bed in a “daytime” space like the living room, then heading to bed about 20 minutes before you want to be asleep.
6. Go to bed at the same time every night
“We have an internal sleep-wake cycle that revolves around the 24-hour day,” Fotinakes says. “I tell patient that I don’t care so much about when they sleep, but that they get enough sleep and keep their sleep cycle regular.” That goes even for the weekends. Sleeping in to compensate for late Friday or Saturday nights—or sleep-deprived workweeks—is a major cause of insomnia and sleep trouble, he says.