image of a woman sleepingSometimes you just know you’ve slept badly, and that it’s going to be a tougher day than usual.

Other days, you might wake up with the feeling you didn’t sleep too well, but still manage to get through the day just fine.

So how exactly do you work out if you’re actually getting enough sleep, despite one or two disruptions, or if you should be worried about your sleep pattern?

The classic advice is that on average, adults need between 7 and 9 hours sleep The reality is that it’s more complex than that.

In 2016, the National Sleep Foundation produced a major report which identifies 4 key sleep goals. These goals can be used to judge how well you sleep:

  • The length of time it takes you to fall asleep.
  • The number of times you wake up during the night, and how long for.
  • How long it takes you to fall asleep again after waking up.
  • How much sleep you get in total.

In this article, I’ll be looking at these four points, and also suggesting some ways could try to improve each one.

The research

The report was produced by a group of medical and sleep experts, reviewing 277 past sleep studies. The findings were reported in the Sleep Health journal in December 2016.

From the review, they identified a number of sleep characteristics that are useful indicators of people’s sleep quality.

They then went on to generate a set of guidelines on what represents normal sleep characteristics, based on average findings from all the studies.

It’s important to note that the guidelines are most relevant for otherwise healthy people, as there are a number of medical conditions which can affect your sleep.

In commenting on the report, sleep specialist Philip Gehrman from the University of Pennsylvania said:

Not only will it help people know when their sleep is poor…but sometimes people think they are bad sleepers when really they’re in the normal range.

The 4 sleep characteristics

1. Taking longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep

Very few people fall asleep the moment their head hits the pillow. Taking up to 30 minutes to go to sleep is normal and nothing to worry about.

If it regularly takes you longer than 30 minutes, there are some possible approaches you might consider, including:

  • Try and make the hour before bed a quiet and relaxing ‘wind down’ time.
  • If you’re worried about work, life, family or health, you could try some relaxation techniques.
  • Try to avoid checking emails, social media or playing video games before bed.
  • You may be going to bed too early, rather than when you’re tired enough to sleep.

If you’d like to explore these suggestions further, you can find more detail and additional suggestions on the sleep hygiene page.

2. Waking up too often at night

Do you wake up for 5 minutes or longer, more than once per night? Or if you’re over 65 years old, more than twice per night?

During normal sleep you go through various stages of light and deep sleep. So if you wake up a couple of times, but go back to sleep reasonably quickly, it’s probably not a problem.

But if you find you wake up lots of times, it may disturb your sleep phases and result in poor quality sleep.

If this happens to you on a regular basis, you might also want to consult your doctor, as frequent awakenings could be due to a treatable health issue, such as sleep apnea.

Equally, it could be due to other factors, such as eating a big meal late at night, drinking alcohol before bed, medication, external noise, you or your partner snoring.

3. Fall back to sleep within 20 minutes

Most people probably hope they’ll fall asleep again pretty quickly if they wake up in the night. But the researchers suggest that taking 20 minutes to fall back to sleep isn’t unusual and is nothing to worry about, especially if you’re relaxed in bed.

However, it might become problematic if you wake up in the night several times and often take that long to fall back to sleep.

If it takes you longer than 20 minutes, you might worry that you’re never going to get back to sleep again that night. In which case you might fall into the vicious circle of worrying about sleep making it even harder to get to sleep.

So if it does take you longer than 20 minutes, the experts often advise that you get out of bed for 10-15 minutes. During that time, you could do something relaxing such as reading, listening to music or having a relaxing caffeine-free drink.

Equally, it’s better to avoid the temptation of watching TV, surfing the internet, checking emails or social media.

You might also want to consider how you feel in bed. Are you comfortable and cozy? If you’re uncomfortable or you’re too hot or cold, you might want to make changes to your bed, bedding and room temperature.

Even simple things like mattress toppers, heated or cooling mattress pads, or different bed sheets and pillows can make an enormous difference.

4. You sleep for 85% of the time you’re in bed

Ideally, the best outcome is if you’re asleep for 85% of the time you’re in bed. So once you subtract the time it takes to fall asleep and any nocturnal wakings, the idea is that you’re asleep for most of the night.

If you’re within the normal ranges for the first three characteristics above, then this final point should take care of itself.

Here are the times you should aim to sleep for compared to the total time between going to bed and getting up in the morning:

  • 9 total hours in bed: be asleep for 7 hours 40 minutes.
  • 8 total hours in bed: be asleep for 6 hours 50 minutes.
  • 7 total hours in bed: be asleep for 6 hours.

How do you know how well you slept?

Sleep professionals will often say that we’re not always the best judges of how well we’ve actually slept. In many cases, sleep studies suggest that people sleep better and for longer than they think they do.

One way of checking is to keep a detailed sleep log, trying your best to calculate the times, but without spending half the night checking your clock of course. And you could also try using a sleep tracker.

How you feel during the day

A key point really is that we’re all different, and although some people can get by on less sleep, others need a full night’s sleep to be at their best.

So as well as following these useful guidelines, an essential question is how you feel during the daytime. Do you feel refreshed when you wake up and alert all day? If not then you’re probably sleep deprived.

For me, the subjective ‘how I feel’ assessment is just as important as trying to compare your own sleep with normal sleep characteristics.

Nevertheless, if you’re not a consistently good sleeper, these guidelines will hopefully provide some clues as to which aspects of your sleep are average and which might not be normal.

And just knowing this might help you focus on one aspect at a time, rather than trying to solve all your sleep problems in one go.

Your thoughts

I’m interested to hear if you found any of the above points useful. And do they seem to you to be the right parameters for judging your sleep quality?

Please feel free to leave a comment below.

21 thoughts on “How Do You Know You Slept Well? 4 Indicators Of Good Sleep”

  1. Hi Ethan,

    I just had my tonsillectomy last month and that was my ENT doctor best suggestion to cure my sleep apnea. I was before suffering from tiredness, mood swing, falling asleep in the midday in the office, or when I’m driving home. After my surgery, I feel more energetic, focus and all day awake, does It mean I’m getting a good sleep already or am I totally free of sleep apnea at all?

    1. Hi Mark
      I would say those are very good signs that you are sleeping better! In many ways, how you feel the next day is the best indicator of whether you got enough good quality sleep. As for Apnea, that’s something to keep an eye on and discuss with your doctor.

  2. Interesting and useful information. I am a mother and my problem is getting back to sleep after being woken up by them during the night! It is hard to stay sleepy when I have to get out of bed and breastfeed the baby at 2 or 3 am. I do this without lights or noise to try to maintain the feeling that it is sleep time and not wake up time, this works great for the baby, but unfortunately not for me. I have a good bedtime routine and falling asleep at bedtime is easy, just not after the night waking. Last night I didn’t get back to sleep at all and then had to get up at 7 to get the 4 yr old ready for preschool. Sometimes it feels like I’m so used to operating on less sleep that by the time the 2 am feed rolls around my body says “that’s enough sleep for you.”

    1. Hi Jane
      Thanks for your comment. I think you are talking about one of the hardest times for maintaining sleep that people experience in life. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to this one! The best idea I’ve witnessed first hand is to try and go to sleep yourself as early as possible if you’re feeling sleep deprived. less TV time and more time in bed is sometimes helpful, for example. You are doing the right thing in keeping the lights down. when you do get woken in the night, try to focus on relaxing and not allow yourself to get stressed about being awake…if possible, though I know it isn’t easy. I’d also suggest looking through mum’s forums like mumsnet. You can find lots of great chats about sleep as a parent there.

  3. Hi, I was kinda worried about my situation. I’m always a late sleeper. But these past few days I’ve been having a very hard time falling asleep, and the most confusing part is i don’t know if i slept at all. My cousin told me I did, but that’s not how i feel. I’ve been suffering from anxiety lately. its as if my brain is awake, even if I’m sleeping.

    1. Hi Natricia
      Thanks for your comment. Sometimes people do go through phases of sleeping worse, and hopefully your normal sleep pattern will return soon. Try not to stress about how much you slept or not – often we do sleep better than we think we did.

  4. Thanks for all the good information. I use a fitbit, and according to the data collected, I only average about 10% of the time in deep sleep. I often feel restless and would love to enjoy a good night’s sleep. I don’t take anything to enhance my sleep as I believe I should be able to manage it myself. I am starting to make sure my diet is better and do more exercise.

    1. Hi Tom
      Thanks for your comment. I think it’s worth remembering that the accuracy of sleep trackers when it comes to sleep stages is questionable. How you actually feel in the daytime is the only real measure of how well you’re sleeping.
      If you think you don’t sleep well, hopefully the steps you’re taking will start to make a difference. Have a look around this site too as you’ll find some practical tips for sleeping better.

  5. Hi Ethan, thank you for this information. I have a fitbit and according to the tracker I slept for 8h40min but only 2h20min was deep sleep. This is my readings for every night so far thus week. Average of 8h sleep but the deep sleep is only between 2 and 3 hours.Is that normal?? I normally wake up before my alarm and feel rested. During the day I am fine but the last couple of weeks I had trouble staying awake past 21:00. If I wake up during the night I don’t go back to sleep very easily. It sometimes takes about 1h30m to 2h to get back to sleep.

    1. Hi Llonka
      Thanks for your comment. Although I’m not convinced sleep trackers are totally accurate for measuring sleep stages, the amount of deep sleep you were recorded as having is about right actually; 20-25% time spent in deep sleep is quite normal for an adult.

  6. I always have trouble falling asleep. I feel so stressed that I won’t be able to sleep that I can’t sleep! It takes me at least 2 hours to fall asleep, maybe even more! It also takes me at least the same amount of time to fall back asleep when I wake up (I usually wake up three times a night). I have black rings underneath my eyes now and I fee really tired when I wake up. I get at least 6 hours of sleep per night. Today, when I woke up, I didn’t feel tired like I usually do and I didn’t feel sleepy. Why is that?

    1. Hi Emilie
      Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear you have such a terrible time sleeping. Have you spoken to your doctor about this to get some advice and support? As for why you woke up feeling better today, I imagine it’s because you finally got some better sleep last night! Sometimes we think we slept badly when in fact we got more sleep than we think.

  7. They say ‘don’t google your illness’

    It’s horrifying the information you can find!

    This article was very helpful – thank you – but you know there is something seriously wrong when there are 4 indicators and you have all 4 in spades… as I do

    I’m also having horrendous vivid nightmares and am then scared to go back to sleep. It’s currently 2:32 am in Perth Australia and this is my third waking from nightmare after finally fallling asleep around 11 am after being in bed since 8:30 pm

    I have a host of co-morbid conditions that make this situation worse or are probably more the cause i.e. bipolar, with high anxiety for the past two months

    My dr and I are working on all the above but it was reassuring to find this site to find:
    I’m not crazy
    I’m not imaging things
    This happens to other people
    These are well known symptoms
    There are reasons why
    And advice

    I started here on the electric shock you feel when falling asleep – and then transitioned to this article (oh yes! I have those too!)

    Anyway. This wasn’t meant to be a litany of woes… More a thank you for the site, the effort, the science/research and the ideas.

    1. Hi Jennifer
      Thanks for your comment. You’re right in that the internet can be a scary place when you start looking up medical symptoms! I’m glad you’ve found the site to be helpful though. I know lots of readers have said in the past that knowing they aren’t alone, or crazy, is a big help. I hope you and your doctor find some ways to help improve your particular symptoms, and that perhaps you find some advice around this site which also helps a little.

    2. Jennifer , the most culprit of your this condition is negative thoughts. Stay aware from negative thoughts and dl exercise , if you can. And the most important thing is to meditation. Try to do meditation, at least 5 minutes a day. Thank you.

  8. Great post! I think a lot of people wake up not well rested and wonder why. This is a helpful guide. Thanks for sharing!

    M. Henry

  9. I never feel like I get any sleep. Always tired, body is full of pain. Work meetings are scary as I can never stay awake, driving can also get interesting as I catch myself dozing off. I have an appointment set up with my doctor soon to try and get to the bottom of this issue. My Fitbit Charge 2 says I average about 4 hours / night. with 8 hours of in bed time. Gah!

    1. Hi Joe
      Thanks for your comment. That’s definitely a worrying situation you have there – falling asleep at the wheel obviously is something you need to try and stop happening, as is generally feeling so bad during the day. Hopefully your doctor can help you with this – take the App readings with you to show the doctor. Even though they can be a bit inaccurate, it still helps to build an overall picture.

  10. Reading all makes me realize I sleep well
    And must stop worrying.occasional sleeplessnes is not much of a problem
    Thanks I appreciate your advice

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