Sleep is a basic human need and the importance of a good night’s sleep is vital to our wellbeing and health. How many hours of quality sleep do you get each day? Research recommends that adults aged 18+ years should aim for between 7 – 9 hours of sleep per day (National Sleep Foundation, 2015). Of course, many will say they work fine with less sleep, although studies have shown that those who consistently sleep between 4 – 6 hours per day do show decreased short-term memory, attention and decision making speed when compared to those who regularly maintain between 7-9 hours per day.
‘Sleep hygiene’ is a term used to describe habits that can improve your sleep. Anything that keeps you from regularly getting a good night’s rest could be a sign of bad sleep hygiene. Perhaps it’s drinking coffee or alcohol after dinner and then tossing and turning all night, staying up late on social media or doing computer work and then being unable to “wind down”, or not having a regular sleep schedule in place that supports a consistent bedtime and wake time.
Below are a number of behaviours and techniques that will help promote quality sleep.
1) Get a sleep routine.
Set a time that you go to bed and wake each day – sticking closely to these times even on weekends. Use alarms if you need to signal when you should start getting ready for bed and for when you need to wake. A warm bath or shower 1 hour before bed causes the body’s temperature to rise and then fall again, which may promote sleep.
2) Go to sleep when you are tired.
The body has a natural clock which will make you sleepy when you’re ready for bed. Create awareness of the time of evening you get sleepy and plan your sleep routine with this in mind. Ignoring your body clock may mean that you have disturbed sleep, waking at odd times in the evening or early morning. Relying on sleep medication too frequently may also create ongoing issues for sleep quality and physical health.
3)Set up a comfortable sleep environment.
A slightly cooler room with adequate blankets to keep you warm is best. If there is too much noise in the room (a snorer, TV, neighbourhood sounds), wear earplugs or use ambient music to reduce your focus on outside sound. Buy comfortable pillows, mattress, blankets or pyjamas if you find the ones you have are uncomfortable. Declutter your bedroom if you find you have a goat track leading in and out of bed as mess can feel overwhelming, not to mention quite dangerous for your bathroom breaks or sleepwalking antics in the night.
4) Use your bed for sleep and sex only.
The brain makes connections between places (the bedroom) and events (sleeping) and you need to reinforce these. Remove any objects, pets or distractions that may belong somewhere elsewhere in the house (i.e. lounge room, study, kitchen, kennel) if you find yourself engaged by these while in bed. Interacting with your phone, tablet or TV while in bed doesn’t promote sleep onset and the backlight of these devices can cause disturbed sleep. Netflix, Facebook, Pinterest and Candy Crush will be there for your enjoyment tomorrow – the bed is for sleep. If you are lying in bed awake for more than 20-30 minutes, get out of bed until sleepy again.
5) Promote inner calm.
Use a relaxation exercise or soothing imagery or sounds when you first go to bed. Even if you don’t fall asleep immediately, this will allow your body to rest and feel relaxed.
6) Get the lead up to bedtime right.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, sugars and other stimulants in the evening as these can maintain a state of arousal when you are heading to bed. Don’t go to bed feeling full and change up a heavy dinner to a lighter meal, particularly if you eat later in the evening. Exercising too late in the evening is not recommended as it stimulates the body – try to get your exercise in before dinner.
7)Set up worry time.
Make time to write down problems & possible solutions in the late afternoon or early evening, not close to bedtime. Do not dwell on any one thought or idea—merely note it down somewhere and put the idea aside.
8) Let go of unhelpful thoughts.
Challenge your concerns and avoid catastrophising when you find yourself surrendering to maladaptive thoughts like: “Oh no, look how late it is, I’ll never get to sleep” or “I must have eight hours of sleep each night, if I get less than eight hours of
sleep, tomorrow will be a bad day for me.” Remember that we cannot fully control our sleep process and it’s not helped by trying too hard. These mind traps and watching the clock will only promote sleep anxiety. Try whispering an affirmation to yourself while in bed such as “I am relaxed and sleepy”, “I am giving myself permission to fall into a long and luxurious sleep”, “My bed is soft and warm and I am calm”.
The benefits of sleep are wide-ranging. During sleep, our bodies work to support brain function through forming new pathways to help us learn and remember information. Sleep also maintains physical health including hormonal balance, the healing and repair of the heart and blood vessels and a more effective immune system. Long-term sleep deficiency has been linked to increased rates of suicide, depression and risk-taking behaviour.
Awareness is the biggest factor that can promote good sleep hygiene. If you find yourself troubled by sleep, try the techniques in this article and keep a sleep diary for about two weeks to track your progress and see how you are going. If you are finding that getting a good night’s sleep is still an issue for you, or that you are having difficulty maintaining good sleep hygiene behaviours, it may be useful to connect with a health professional (GP, psychologist, sleep clinic, etc) for further support and enquiry.