What is sleep hygiene?
Sleep hygiene is what sleep experts and doctors use as an umbrella term for lots of different habits that are recommended to help people sleep better.
So although having an evening shower to wash away the day’s sweat and cool your body in hot weather might be helpful, sleep hygiene isn’t really about cleanliness.
The way I always explain it to people is that having good sleep hygiene means paying close attention to three key areas of your life that can affect your sleep:
- Lifestyle choices, such as diet, exercise, and even how you handle stress.
- The way you set up your bed and bedroom.
- Your daily and nightly routines.
Will sleep hygiene help me sleep better?
Sleep hygiene can be effective, but you might need to put consistent effort into changing one or two (or even more!) habits to reap the rewards.
I like to describe sleep hygiene as being like a jigsaw puzzle, with many different pieces of advice to consider. The more of them you put together, the more likely it is that you’ll see the complete picture of a good night’s sleep.
Some techniques can take time to really make a difference. The key is to stick with them and be patient.
So, let’s take a look at some healthy sleep habits that you can try. You might find you already do some of them, which is great. If there are others that you don’t currently do, have a think about whether you’re able to try them out for a few weeks to see if they make a difference.
1. Stick to a regular sleep schedule
Our bodies like routine, and it’s no different when it comes to sleep. In the ideal world, we’d go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – easier said than done, I know!
Some people struggle to fall asleep at roughly the same time every night, no matter how hard they try. It can be stressful and frustrating going to bed at 10 p.m. because you’ve calculated that gives you just enough time to sleep, but then you end up lying awake for ages.
One technique that might help is to be very consistent about the time you set your alarm in the morning. It’s easier to control the time a loud alarm wakes you than the time your mind finally decides to stop thinking and go to sleep.
For me personally, waking up at the same time every day has been one of the keys to improving my sleep overall. I find that having that stability in the morning helps increase the chance of stability in the nighttime too.
I also tend to sleep better in general if I continue to get out of bed reasonably early on weekends. However, I can understand that social activities and the need to catch up on some sleep might not make the idea of getting up at 7 a.m. on a Sunday very appealing.
If you can resist the temptation to spend lazy weekend mornings in bed though, getting up at (more or less) the same time every day of the week might just help your sleep schedule overall.
2. Decide that sleep is an essential part of your day
All too often we sacrifice precious sleep time for other activities. Sometimes they are important and that’s understandable. However, we also have a tendency to get stuck on autopilot staring at screens because, well, funny cat videos exist.
If you regularly feel like you don’t get enough sleep though, it’s worth considering how much of a priority your sleep is, and how much time you set aside for it.
Ideally, it should be a non-negotiable time of the day, with just as much importance as eating or working. Obviously, there are situations when you can’t just tell your family that you’re unavailable for the next nine hours, as much as you might wish you could sometimes!
However, once you start to see sleep as important, it might make some of the micro decisions easier, such as “shall I watch another episode or go to bed?”
Go to bed, is probably the correct answer if that question comes to mind. Just don’t then migrate to your phone in bed, giggling at cats. And as much of a contradiction as it sounds, if you’ve gone to bed feeling really stressed or upset, maybe a cheeky few minutes to cheer you up might not be so bad (but you didn’t hear that from me, okay?)
3. Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep
You may know from experience that lying awake for hours in the dark, endlessly changing position in the hope that you’ll hit the jackpot of the perfect position to fall asleep, steadily getting more stressed about how you’ll feel the next day, isn’t much fun.
That’s why for some people it sometimes helps to only go to bed when you feel tired rather than at the same time every night. I know this isn’t in line with the advice about having a stable sleep schedule, but it might be one to try if a sleep schedule just isn’t working for you.
It can take up to 30 minutes to fall asleep. So if you find yourself awake after that time, it might be better to get up for a while, then try to sleep again a bit later. During that time, you could repeat part of the bedtime routine coming up next.
Personally, if I can’t fall asleep, I either make myself a cup of decaf tea, or just turn the light on and read a book for a while and try to fall asleep again a bit later.
4. Have a relaxing bedtime routine
Like many people, you might find your insomnia is linked to an overactive mind. Perhaps you find yourself in mental fifth gear right up until bedtime and just can’t unwind. Maybe you feel relaxed, but when you switch the light off, your brain switches on.
Taking some time before bed to regularly do a calming activity can go a long way to keeping those thoughts and worries in check. This is another key point so there’s an extended article about it:
5. Calm your mind with relaxation techniques
Before you go to bed it can help to do some relaxation techniques. You can even do them whilst lying in bed to help you relax and fall asleep. There are several exercises you might like to try:
- Deep breathing exercises.
- Gentle yoga.
- Progressive muscle relaxation.
- Guided meditation and visualization recordings.
- Mindfulness techniques.
If you’re the kind of person who finds you can’t switch your brain off at night, these techniques can be effective because they can help shift your mind’s focus away from your worries, plans, and thoughts about the future.
6. Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep
Your bedroom, bed, and bedding can have a profound effect on the way you sleep. Take a look at the following ideas and see how many you currently do:
- Keep the bedroom tidy, clean, and free from clutter.
- If there are two of you, make sure you have a large enough bed.
- Use a mattress and/or mattress topper that has the right level of firmness or softness for you.
- If the bedroom feels stuffy or humid, open a window or use a dehumidifier.
- Use opaque curtains or blackout blinds to prevent light from coming in. If that’s not possible, try using a sleep mask.
- Don’t let your bedroom get too hot or cold. The ideal sleeping temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 17 to 21 degrees Celsius.
7. Only use the bedroom for sleep and intimacy
It can help if your brain associates the bedroom with just two things: sleep and sex. The only exception should be if you find it relaxing to read a book in bed.
I work from home a lot, and try to keep out of the bedroom during the daytime as much as possible. I never watch movies in bed either, even though I know I really enjoy it.
Perhaps most importantly, I have a personal rule of never engaging in stressful, difficult, painful, or sad conversations with my partner in bed at night.
I find it’s hard to fall asleep in the same space you’ve just been discussing something heavy because the ideas and emotions linger in my mind. It’s much better to have those conversations during the daytime when you’re less tired.
8. Don’t use a phones, tablet or laptop in bed
It’s often advised to avoid using electronic equipment in bed, for several reasons:
- The bright light from the screen might keep some people awake.
- Working, playing games, or surfing the internet can stimulate your brain and stop you from relaxing.
- Screens can be addictive, and trying to beat the next level or spending time on social media can ruin a carefully planned sleep routine.
If you disagree, and find it relaxing to use your smartphone or tablet in bed, then try to limit it to activities that are not too stimulating. You can also dim the screen, use the blue light filter or night mode in the main settings.
9. Choose the right mattress
Your mattress is the most important part of your bed, so it’s essential to have a comfortable and supportive mattress. Here are some key points to bear in mind when choosing one, or if you’re thinking of changing yours:
- Your mattress should be big enough for you and a partner to sleep on, ideally with some room to stretch out and not feel confined to a narrow section.
- Mattresses tend to need replacing every eight years on average.
- When lying on your back, you should be able to slide your hand between the mattress and your back. Not too easily and not with too much force.
- Bed frames with slats are good choices as they allow air to circulate under your mattress.
If it’s too expensive to replace your mattress, a great alternative is a mattress topper. A topper can help rejuvenate an aging mattress, add some softness, make it firmer, or make it feel cooler to sleep on.
10. Choose high-quality bedding and pillows
Choose the best quality bedding you can afford, clean it regularly, and use hypoallergenic fabric if you have allergies.
As well as feeling more comfortable, some fabrics are better at regulating your body temperature:
- Cotton – most durable, soft and breathable. A higher thread count (350 or more) means it will be softer. Choose Egyptian, MicroCotton or Pima cotton if possible.
- Silk – ideal for hot summer nights and those with allergies.
- Satin – feels nice, but isn’t so breathable.
- Polyester – lower price and can feel soft, but might also feel more artificial.
11. Make sure your bedroom is quiet
External noise and snoring are very common causes of sleeplessness. When it comes to noise, there are essentially two avenues to explore: stopping the noise at the source and reducing how much sound reaches your tired mind.
Here are a few options to try:
- If a neighbor or someone in your house is creating the noise, speak to them about it honestly and calmly. Don’t suffer in silence, but don’t start a sound war in anger either – they don’t tend to end well.
- If you can’t stop the noise at the source, try using earplugs, or perhaps a white noise machine or a fan.
- Use heavy curtains by an external window or consider getting double glazing.
- Put more furniture by a shared wall to soak up some sound.
- Use some noise cancelling or sleep headphones and listen to some relaxing music.
A bedroom should be a little like a cave: cool, dark, and quiet. But I appreciate that cutting out loud noise from the outside world (or a partner’s jet engine snoring) isn’t always so easy.
If this is a serious, ongoing problem for you, you might find it helpful to read my longer article about noise in the bedroom.
12. Avoid caffeine and energy drinks
Some people can drink an espresso after dinner and fall asleep as instantly as an instant coffee (how do they do that?!)
For the rest of us mere mortals, caffeine probably isn’t the best choice of evening drink.
If you’re sensitive to stimulants, you might want to avoid these drinks in the afternoon, as caffeine can stay in your body for a long time:
- Black tea.
- Green tea, as it does contain caffeine.
- Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other colas.
- Energy and sports drinks such as Red Bull.
- Sugary drinks.
If you like to have a hot drink at night, either warm milk or a herbal tea could form a part of your bedtime routine. You can find many sleep teas in stores, supermarkets and online nowadays.
13. Cut out the nightcap
Some insomniacs find that alcohol helps them fall asleep faster, and researchers have also shown that to be true, such as in this study review in 2013.
However, researchers have also shown that alcohol can affect the quality of different sleep stages in ways you might not notice, which results in you feeling less refreshed the next day.
So if you do drink alcohol in the evening, perhaps try to drink only a small amount.
14. Stay hydrated
Researchers in 2013 found that drinking enough water during the day was associated with better sleep.
There are differing opinions about how much water is sufficient, and it depends on factors such as your age, size, and activity levels. But on average, a man should aim to drink around 3 liters of water a day and a woman 2.2 liters.
I also recommend keeping a glass or bottle of water by your bed in case you wake up feeling thirsty. And when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I like to do is have a good drink of water to rehydrate my body after the night’s sleep.
15. Be careful what you eat at night
Your diet might be having a more significant impact on your sleep than you realize. The unsurprising rule of thumb is that the healthier your diet, the healthier your sleep.
Here are some key food points to keep in mind:
- Eat your biggest meal of the day for lunch. If you can’t, eat dinner earlier in the evening if possibe. The important thing is not to eat a very heavy meal late in the evening.
- Avoid sugary food before bed, especially chocolate as it contains caffeine.
- Avoid spicy, unhealthy fats, or fried food before bed.
- Avoid food with lots of processed carbohydrates at night. If you eat pasta, for example, eat wholewheat pasta.
On a personal level, my general rule of thumb is that if my dinner leaves me feeling bloated, it probably wasn’t the best choice. That’s also the reason I try to avoid excessive snacking late at night, as much as I love crunching my way through a giant bowl of popcorn while watching a good movie.
16. Food that’s okay to eat before bed
There’s no scientific evidence that any particular food will actively help you fall asleep. However, some food is better than others to snack on before bed. Here are some ideas:
- Cottage cheese.
- Peanut butter on toast (preferably on brown bread).
- Bowl of high fiber, low sugar cereal.
- Handful of nuts.
- Yogurt with berries.
Food containing the amino acid tryptophan may also be worth considering. Tryptophan is converted by the body into the hormone serotonin. Serotonin leads to melatonin, which helps keep your internal body clock in order.
Tryptophan is contained in most food that contains protein, but is found in especially high concentrations in:
- pumpkin seeds.
17. Regular exercise
Tiring both your brain and your body out during the day can be an effective way of getting to sleep at night.
A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 83% of adults who did vigorous exercise during the day had fairly or very good sleep. In comparison, just 56% who didn’t do any exercise slept well.
Not only does exercise naturally tire you out, but it also helps combat stress, anxiety and depression. So by helping you relax and deal with mental turmoil, it’s helping you unwind and sleep better.
This is another of the factors which makes the biggest difference for me personally. I’m 100% sure that I sleep better on days I do exercise, especially compared to a lazy Sunday spent binge-watching the latest Netflix series.
18. Get some sun
Even if you can’t exercise, it’s a good idea to get out of the house for a walk or just sit in the daylight. Sunlight helps keep your body clock ticking over nicely, and is good for mental well-being.
19. Quit smoking
Nicotine is a stimulant and like caffeine, can result in sleeplessness. At the very least try not to smoke in the hour or two before bedtime. If you’re a heavy smoker it’s another good reason to consider quitting.
20. Avoid sleeping pills and check your medication side effects
Tempting as it might be to have an emergency supply of sleeping pills, it’s better not to get into the habit of relying on them.
Rebound insomnia when coming off sleeping pills can ruin all the hard work you put into developing healthy sleep habits.
It’s also worth checking the information leaflets of any other medication you’re taking, or consulting your doctor. You might be surprised to find they list symptoms such as restlessness, agitation, and insomnia as possible side effects.
If you do feel you’d like to try sleeping pills to get you through a period of bad sleep, do talk to your doctor about it to get their advice.
I think it’s also a good idea to consult your doctor if you’re having ongoing sleep problems. They might identify a root cause you hadn’t considered, and to offer guidance or treatment that’s specific to your needs and sleep problems.
How many of these habits do you do now? Are there any you think would help you, or do you have any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments below as I’d love to hear from you.