If you have kids or even if you remember being a kid, you're likely familiar with the importance of a bedtime routine. Children often need help shifting gears to slumber. A regular routine in which the same actions are completed in the same sequence right before bed each night signals to the brain that it's time for sleep. Because our brains thrive on routine, we come to associate the sequence of events at bedtime with sleep, and we fall asleep faster.
Parents are usually firm in enforcing a bedtime routine for kids because the repetition really does help kids fall asleep and it provides parents with much-needed downtime at night, too.
But most people do away with a bedtime routine by the time they become adults and instead engage in stimulating activities right up until the moment they close their eyes. This doesn’t give your mind — or body — the chance to fully adjust.
According to Robert Pagano, co-founder of Sleepline, the best bedtime routine has a three-prong approach that includes elements of "physical relaxation, mental quieting, and emotional reconciliation." Pagano wrote in an email:
"An adult's ritual should focus on slowing down the body, which will help with winding down their mind."
If you’re struggling to fall asleep at night, you might try getting back to basics with a bedtime routine. Select a few of these techniques to build a nighttime sequence that helps you (literally) sleep like a baby.
Structure your sleep time.
Provide the scaffolding for your nighttime routine by deciding on a consistent bedtime — and wake-up time — that’s realistic for you. Being a stickler for your bedtime and wake-up time allows your body to grow accustomed to the natural rhythms of day and night.
Like bedtime routines, having a regular bedtime is another one of those things that is helpful for kids and adults alike.
Self-soothe with a cleaning ritual.
While it's not realistic for many of us to draw a big, warm bath every night before bed, some type of bathing activity can help you physically and symbolically "wash away" the day. Submerging your whole body in a bubble bath would be ideal, as researchers have found that taking a warm bath 1-2 hours before bedtime improves sleep quality.
But for most of us, this will simply be a face-washing ritual. You can always upgrade this step to a more luxurious practice, like applying a face mask and then reading a few chapters of a book while you wait to rinse it off. Along with brushing your teeth, the act of physically washing your body will provide a signal that the day is done.
Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and strictly reserved for two things.
Sleep experts recommend making your bedroom into a restful oasis: dark, cool, and free of clutter. The darkness signals to your brain that it’s time to wind down and rest, while the cool temperature helps prepare your body for sleep.
Your body temperature drops when you’re asleep, so in keeping your bedroom cool, you’re tapping into your body’s natural inclination to sleep. A cool bedroom at night improves the quality of your sleep, reduces insomnia, and provides various health benefits. To make your room into a cool, dark sleep chamber, try using some blackout curtains, turning on a fan, and maybe even sleeping naked.
Nudity brings us to the next suggestion. If possible, keep your bedroom reserved for only two things: sleep and sex.
According to clinical psychologist, author, and business coach Dr. Kim Dwyer, reserving the "bed and bedroom only for sleeping and intimacy" is important.
“If we have taught our brain and body that we do work on our computer sitting on our bed, which requires us to be alert, and then we try to go to sleep, which requires us to relax, we are sending ourselves mixed messages,” Dwyer advised in an email.
Stop sending yourself mixed messages. Get busy in the sheets, get some rest — or get out of the bedroom.
Put down the phone and turn off the TV.
At least one hour before bedtime, begin to separate yourself from your electronics. Unclutch your phone and put it face-down someplace where you won’t be tempted to grab it and continue doom-scrolling. This habit is perhaps the hardest to break, but keep in mind that the internet will still be there in the morning.
You will never reach the end of the internet, no matter how late you stay up.
Aside from the mental health aspect of consuming so much content right up until you fall asleep, the blue light of electronics dupes your brain into thinking it’s not nighttime, so it remains awake and alert. If you’re hoping to unwind and fall asleep quickly, blue light will have the opposite effect.
"Exposure to light in the evening, especially close range exposure to blue light from electronics, can interfere with our body's natural ability to produce and respond to melatonin, which helps us feel sleepy," Dr. Dwyer explained in an email.
As for TV, a more sleep-inducing alternative to watching "your stories" on television at night is to read stories in a book. This can be especially helpful if you’re prone to anxious thoughts, as reading about other people's lives can distract you from worrying about your own.
Scribble down your worries in a bedtime journal.
Speaking of worries, many people swear by journaling before bed, as it provides an outlet for the anxieties that have been running through their minds all day. Setting aside time each day to list out your worries is a popular stress-busting technique, and it can help you clear your head before going to sleep.
In a similar vein, research suggests that sitting down right before bed to write out your to-do list for the next day can help you fall asleep much more quickly.
Participants in a neuroscience study were divided into two groups: one group wrote down a list of tasks they had completed while the other group wrote down the tasks they wanted to complete in the next few days. The to-do-list participants fell asleep "significantly faster" than those in the completed-list group.
Try stretching, yoga, or meditation.
Devoting a few moments before bedtime to a relaxing ritual such as light stretching or yoga poses, breathing exercises, or meditation can help you fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply. Research from 2019 determined that mind-body therapies — including meditation, tai chi, qigong, and yoga — resulted in a "statistically significant improvement in sleep quality and reduction on insomnia severity."
Yoga has been shown to promote relaxation and alleviate insomnia. Meditation falls under the "mental quieting" prong of Pagano’s three-prong approach to a bedtime routine, and the long, slow breaths that come with meditation can also benefit our bodies by decreasing blood pressure and releasing melatonin, among other things.
If you're looking to get into meditation, you’re alive at the absolute best moment. These days, there are about as many meditation and sleep apps and podcasts as there are stars in the sky. Here’s a good list of them to help kick off your sleep-seeking journey.
The bottom line: As kids, we probably gave zero thought to how a bedtime routine behooved us. We just fell asleep (usually). But the cool thing about being an adult is that we can be intentional about our sleep health and we can build a bedtime routine that we find awesome. Then, in the morning, we can eat all the Cinnamon Toast Crunch we want — just another win for adulthood.
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