Are you reading this article in bed because you just can’t sleep tonight? Have you had a run of sleepless nights and need some tips to improve your sleep in general?
I’ve suffered from periods of insomnia for many years, so I know how frustrating and draining it is to lie awake for hours on end, night after night.
I also know what helps me personally, having tried everything under the sun (and moon!) to help me sleep better over the years.
In this article, you’ll find some practical techniques to help you fall asleep faster tonight. I’ll also suggest ways to approach sleep during the daytime that you might like to consider trying in the future.
- If you’re in bed now and can’t sleep
- Tips to help you fall asleep faster tonight
- Ways to improve your sleep in general
If you’re in bed now and can’t sleep
If you’re reading this on your phone or tablet in bed, it’s probably not the best time to recommend changing your sleep schedule or doing exercise!
Having said that, if your gut feeling is that you should get up and go for a walk to shake the frustration and try to fall asleep again later, then go for it.
Sometimes it can be helpful to have a restart if you’ve been lying in bed for a while. I also find it helps cool the bed a bit if you get up for 10-15 minutes, especially in the summer or if you have a warm memory foam mattress.
If it’s 3 a.m. and that sounds like a ridiculous idea, here are some simple and practical techniques you could try.
- First, take a deep breath and tell yourself you’re not going to stress about being awake. Easier said than done, I know, but give it a go.
- Are you using your phone or tablet? In the settings, turn on the blue light filter or night mode if you’re going to continue using it. Ideally, turn off any visual electronic devices and focus on sleep once you’re finished with this article.
- Do you feel too hot or too cold? Take a minute to adjust or change your bedding if it doesn’t feel right. Perhaps open a window, turn on the air conditioning, fan or heating to make yourself comfortable.
- Have you been in bed for a long time trying to sleep? If so, get up for 10 minutes. Sit in another room with dim lighting, read a book, or do a quiet activity you find relaxing.
- Are you feeling sweaty, hot, or uncomfortable? Have a quick shower or wash in low lighting.
- Go back to bed (or stay in bed) and do the relaxation exercise below until you fall asleep.
A relaxation exercise to do in bed
- Lie on your back with your arms by your side.
- Take a minute to focus on your breathing.
- Don’t try to change it for a minute – just notice how it is.
- Now breathe slowly through your nose for a slow count of four.
- Hold for a count of two seconds.
- Breathe out slowly through your mouth for a count of four.
- Repeat until you fall asleep or can’t focus on it any longer.
- If four seconds is uncomfortable for the inhale or exhale, it’s okay to change the timing. The important point is that you focus on your breathing, and try to breathe slowly and calmly.
Tips to help you fall asleep faster tonight
If you’re worried about sleeping well later tonight, there are some positive steps you can take during the daytime to improve your chances of sleeping better later.
1. Be active during the day
- Do some exercise. Even going for a walk or doing some stretching can help. It might be best to avoid very intense exercise close to bedtime though, unless you have no other free time to do it.
- Spend some time outside in the sunlight, especially in the morning or early afternoon if possible. This is helpful as your internal body clock is influenced by the natural daily cycle of light and dark.
2. Food and drink
- Avoid caffeine or energy drinks in the afternoon.
- Don’t eat a heavy, fatty, spicy, or sugary meal late in the evening. Keep the evening meal lighter and healthy if possible, especially if you sometimes find that you lie in bed with digestion problems.
- Don’t drink alcohol late in the evening. If you do, keep it in moderation and drink water too.
- If you’re hungry before bed, only have a light snack.
3. Relax before going to bed
- Dedicate 30 to 60 minutes before going to bed to unwind.
- Stop working or checking emails at least an hour before bed.
- Write a to-do list for tomorrow if your mind is full of plans and worries.
- Don’t do anything stressful or have upsetting conversations shortly before, or once in bed.
- Turn the lights down, and do something relaxing. For example: read a book, write, draw, do yoga, meditate, talk or play with family, friends or pets.
- Avoid using screens before bed. Turn off the TV, mobile phone, tablet, or computer at least 30 minutes before going to bed.
- If you can’t put your phone or tablet aside, use a blue light filter.
- Have a relaxing bath or shower.
4. Prepare your bedroom and bed
- Only use your bedroom for sleep and intimacy. Relax in another room before going to bed.
- The ideal bedroom temperature for adults is approximately 66 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (19 to 21 degrees Celsius). Infants and older adults may need a slightly warmer room temperature though. Try to create that temperature with the heating, windows, fan, and appropriate bedding for the season.
- Make sure the bedroom isn’t stuffy. Unless it’s freezing outside, opening a window to let fresh air in can help.
- Use clean sheets and covers.
- Is it noisy? Ask others in your household to be quieter. Try to block as much sound as possible with earplugs, headphones, white noise, or music. For more ideas, check out all my other tips to reduce noise in bed.
- Is it dark enough? Turn off all lights and try to completely cover the windows. Consider getting blackout blinds.
5. Enjoy the calmness and coziness of the bed
- Remember that it’s normal to take 10 to 30 minutes to fall asleep, so don’t stress out if you take a while to drop off.
- Stay calm and enjoy the cozy, warm and safe feeling of being in bed. This is a space that you should feel happy to be in at the end of a long day, and it might help to focus on the warmth and snug feeling instead of worrying about falling asleep.
- If you tend to have a busy mind when you go to bed, try doing a relaxation technique in bed until you feel sleepy.
- There are some excellent guided meditation apps you can listen to before going to bed, or even when you’re in bed. I recommend checking out Headspace, Let’s Meditate, or Calm.
Ways to improve your sleep in general
In my experience, there’s no magic technique guaranteed to make anyone fall asleep quickly on any given night. Even strong sleeping pills don’t work equally for everyone.
However, it certainly helps to understand which health and lifestyle choices can affect your sleep. And how your bedroom environment, attitude and approach to sleep, and daily routine all play a key role.
If you’re reading this section, I imagine you’ve probably had more than your fair share of sleep problems. It’s frustrating, and I can understand if you spend a lot of time wondering why you suffer from bad sleep when others seem to be able to fall asleep anywhere, any time.
I recommend reading through the previous sections if you haven’t already, as there are some practical steps that I won’t be repeating here. In addition to those techniques, there are some other long-term approaches to sleep that are worth considering.
1. Consult your personal physician or doctor
If you often have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you should consult your doctor.
People sometimes think sleep is less important than illness or injury, and not something to bother their doctor about. Sleep deprivation can have negative consequences though, so it’s important to address ongoing sleep problems and any underlying conditions.
Furthermore, there are dozens of different sleep disorders beyond the typical ones most people know like insomnia, snoring, or apnea. So although you might label your problem insomnia, your specific symptoms may need further investigation.
Many different physical and mental health conditions, as well as medications, are associated with sleep problems. Your doctor can help work out if there’s a connection and treat the condition.
2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been shown in clinical trials to be as or more effective than sleeping pills.
For that reason, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that doctors offer CBT before hypnotic medication.
And in the United Kingdom, the National Health Service also suggests that CBT can help people with insomnia.
CBT for insomnia usually involves several components, such as:
- Stimulus control (e.g. only using the bedroom for sleep).
- Sleep restriction (e.g. not spending longer than needed in bed).
- Cognitive strategies (e.g. replacing fear about not sleeping well with positive feelings).
This is something you can speak to your doctor about. There are also online CBT courses you could consider.
3. Tackle stress and anxiety during the day
For many people, the normal stresses of life can cause both short-term and long-term sleep problems.
Even if you don’t have chronic insomnia or another sleep disorder, it’s normal for sleep to be affected when life is particularly challenging. And major life events and changes can be stressful times.
Relationship difficulties, a new job, bereavement, moving home, exams, financial trouble, family worries, sickness – these are just a few examples of major life stressors.
In my personal experience, it’s helpful to do simple relaxation exercises in bed. It’s even better to tackle anxiety and stress during the day on an ongoing basis.
Here are some ideas for you:
- Try self-help, such as mindfulness.
- Ask your doctor for a referral to a counseling service.
- Stay physically and mentally active.
- Use your support network – talk to family and friends about how you feel.
- Take some ‘me time’ a couple of nights a week to do activities you enjoy.
- Help others, such as through volunteering. The NHS has an interesting article about how helping others improves our own mood.
- Avoid unhealthy habits and addictions, like alcohol, smoking, and recreational drugs.
- Develop better time management skills if it’s an issue for you.
- Do yoga, meditation, Chi Kung, Tai Chi, or another relaxing exercise. If you enjoy group classes, you might be able to find one locally. If not, watch online videos, get a book, listen to podcasts, or use an app. These are all good sources of lessons and discussions around exercises that can promote relaxation and support good mental health.
4. Be consistent with good sleep habits
You may have already heard some of the standard advice about good sleep habits. It’s often called sleep hygiene and refers to behavior that helps or hinders sleep.
Here are some of my personal favorites, which I know from experience help me fall asleep faster in general:
Good sleep habits
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Try to go to bed at the same time every night. Get up at the same time every day, which is easier to control than when you fall asleep.
- Avoid naps or siestas in the daytime.
- Create a bedtime ritual that’s calm, free from bright light and screens, and makes you feel positive and less stressed.
- Invest in your bedroom and bedding. Use the most comfortable mattress, covers, and bedding that you can reasonably afford.
- Make your bedroom a clean, calm, airy cool, and dark space to be.
- If you don’t fall asleep after 30 minutes, get up and do something relaxing for 10, then try again. Avoid suffering in silent darkness for hours on end.
- Try to tire yourself out both mentally and physically every day. If you notice you sleep badly after a lazy Sunday of binge watching an awesome series on Netflix with a giant bowl of popcorn and a bottle of wine, maybe it’s time to add in a little extra energy expenditure even on your day of rest, fun or recovery. This tip was a key discovery for me personally. It really helps to avoid the habit of only exercising during the week.
5. Have reasonable expectations of how long it takes to fall asleep
The title of this article raises an important point: how long should it take you to fall asleep anyway
According to Healthline.com, it’s normal to take 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep. If you drift off the minute your head hits the pillow, it might be a sign that you’re sleep deprived.
I can appreciate that 20 minutes of lying awake in the darkness can seem like a very long time, especially with an overactive mind. So it’s helpful to remind yourself that it’s normal to stay awake for a while. Try not to get into a vicious circle of worrying about falling asleep, and do what you can to relax.
6. Don’t just rely on sleep tracker data
Sleep trackers can provide interesting insights, but there’s a potential downside to relying on them too much.
If you use a sleep tracker, try to keep in mind that they aren’t perfect and nd that sometimes the data can give a worse impression of your sleep than the reality.
It’s important to assess how you actually feel and track your sleep consciously. If you wake up feeling okay, that’s all that really matters.
But if you regularly wake up feeling lethargic and tired, and struggle through the day, then it’s something to raise with your doctor.
Your views and ideas
Do you have trouble sleeping? How long does it normally take you? What helps you fall asleep quicker, or does nothing seem to work?
Leave a comment below!