Most of us already know how much sleep we should be getting—seven to nine hours for adults, per recommendations from The National Sleep Foundation—but not as much is said about when we should get it. If you find yourself nodding off shortly after dinner each night and then waking up a little too bright-eyed at 3 a.m., your sleep schedule is probably in need of some adjustments.
“Many people find themselves getting off track when it comes to a healthy sleep schedule, whether it's due to a little too much caffeine, stress or something else entirely,” says Dr. Dena Nader, physician and regional medical director with MedExpress Urgent Care. “While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are a few things people can do to get back to a more regular schedule.”
Get back in tune with your circadian rhythm.
The body relies on light and dark cues to regulate its circadian rhythm, which indicates when it’s time to wind down and wake up. Just as it’s easier to drift off in a dark room, a bright environment is equally important for waking up.
Dr. Nader recommends turning off electronics, which can emit bright light, about an hour before going to bed. “If you work at night and sleep during the day, try to mimic nighttime conditions by using blackout curtains or an eye mask to block sunlight and create more natural sleeping conditions,” she suggests.
When it’s time to wake up, try incorporating some natural light as soon as possible to signal to the body that it’s time to start the day. For instance, you might open the blinds as soon as you wake up.
Ease into a sleep schedule.
One of the main causes of an off-track sleep schedule is going to bed and waking up at different times of day. According to Dr. Nader, the best way to re-establish a healthy sleeping pattern is to create a sleep schedule and then stick to it, even on the weekends.
“Try picking a time that you’d like to go to sleep at every night, and slowly work your way up to it so your body can easily adjust to the time difference,” she suggests. “For example, if you want to go to bed at 10 p.m. instead of 11 p.m., try going to bed 15 minutes earlier each week until you reach your goal.”
Set a bedtime alarm.
Just as you set an alarm to wake up in the morning, try setting one that reminds you it’s time to start the bedtime process each night, suggests clinical sleep educator Terry Cralle, RN. When you find yourself tempted to watch just one more Netflix episode or read one more chapter, the bedtime alarm can help remind you of your commitment to a consistent sleep routine.
Speaking of alarms, Cralle says to avoid hitting the snooze button when waking up: “Simply set an alarm – from across the room, if needed – to allow for maximum sleep time, and then get up when it goes off.”
Institute a caffeine curfew.
Dr. Nader recommends limiting the amount of caffeine consumed in the evenings. “Caffeine can stay in your system for up to eight hours, so try to drink your last cup of coffee, tea or soda early- to mid-afternoon.”
In addition to cutting out caffeine, studies have shown that meal timing plays a part in regulating sleep/wake cycles. Cralle says it’s best to eat dinner at least two or three hours before bedtime.
Just say no to naps.
If you’re a regular napper, you might consider skipping those siestas. “Taking naps during the day can hinder the development of healthy nighttime sleeping habits,” Dr. Nader warns. “While a power nap can leave you feeling refreshed, napping at the wrong time may cause you to sleep more poorly at night.” If you absolutely need a nap, try to take it between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., and keep it on the short side, perhaps 30 minutes or less.
Take a warm shower or bath before bedtime.
Studies have shown that taking a warm shower or bath 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime can help to improve sleep, says Cralle.
Once you’ve turned in for the night, turn your clock around and tuck your phone away until your alarm goes off, says Cralle. If you’re having trouble falling asleep or if you wake up in the middle of the night, checking the time can cause anxiety and make it even more difficult to drift back off.
If you’ve tried various strategies but are still struggling to get back on track, Cralle says it’s best to talk with your physician to get a referral to a sleep doctor about delayed sleep phase (late bedtime with late wake time) and advanced sleep phase (early bedtime with early wake time). If you suffer from delayed sleep phase, melatonin could help your body adjust to a healthier bedtime. Be sure to talk with your doctor to determine whether this is the right choice for you.