Have you ever been tired—bone-tired—and looked forward to finally going to bed only to crawl between the covers and find yourself suddenly unable to sleep? It can truly be one of the most exasperating experiences in the world. Your body is tired—no question about it—but your brain is suddenly awake, thinking about everything from yesterday’s conversations to tomorrow’s bills, to a mistake you made when you were in middle school.
So how we condition our brain and body to work with us and not against us when it’s time to sleep?
The answer—build a bedtime routine. This may seem overly simplistic, but science says otherwise.
Who bedtime routines are for
Perhaps when you hear the term “bedtime routine,” you think about kids.
For decades, people have understood that children need a routine in order to settle down for bed. Many parents rely on regular tasks for their children like bathing, reading, snacking, or snuggling to signal to their children that it’s time to go to sleep. And, undoubtedly, it has served many families well.
As adults, however, we often expect that we should be able to hit the pillow after a busy or stressful day and all of our thoughts, energies, and concerns will magically evaporate. As if our brains and bodies don’t need routine simply because we’re older than children.
In reality, adults need routine as much or more than kids because we carry heavier loads mentally, physically, and emotionally. And training the brain to behave in specific and healthy ways is a lifelong skill. Bedtime routines are not just for kids. They are for anyone who wants to have a good night’s sleep.
How bedtime routines are scientifically supported
Last year, a Consumer Reports survey found that over a quarter of adults in America struggle to go to sleep most nights, and at least 68% of adults struggle at least one night per week. Also, according to BCC Research, the sleep industry—or businesses that sell aids or remedies to help people fall asleep—is expected to become a $52 billion industry by 2020. What does this mean? Two things:
First: if you struggle with sleep, you aren’t alone. (Far from it!) We are a country of exhausted adults who are desperate for improved sleep quality.
Second: we are spending valuable time and energy to pursue better sleep when simple solutions exist that we can try with little effort.
Scientific research shows that our body regulates two of the most important factors concerning sleep—our temperature and our circadian rhythm (also known as the internal regulator of our sleep-wake cycle that repeats every 24 hours)—based on our sleep routine. So building and maintaining a routine is not only critical to good sleep, but it’s necessary. Just as we train our bodies to do other things—like run or sing—we must train our bodies to sleep.
And the good news? It’s easier than you might think. If you struggle to go to sleep regularly, there is hope.
What adult bedtime routines look like
Like anything else, bedtime routines are not one-size-fits-all. Different adults have different sleep needs and respond in different ways to sleep stimuli. If you add something to your bedtime routine that doesn’t help, get rid of it (even if it works for other people). Your specific routine must work for you.
One other important thing to consider: Your sleep routine doesn’t need to be time-consuming or elaborate. Simply building a few good habits into your evening may be all you need. Here are the three most important factors when establishing your bedtime routine:
- Your routine should be realistic. Keep your expectations and habits simple. Getting frustrated by your bedtime routine defeats the purpose.
- Your routine should be relaxing. The whole point is to help you unwind. Avoid technology or chores that unnecessarily stimulate your brain. If you catch yourself reading, discussing, or thinking about matters that will energize your mind, commit to handling those thoughts or actions in the morning.
- Your routine should be ritualistic. Ideally, you should be able to go through your bedtime routine without much thought, wherever you are, and whenever you go to bed. When trying to build new habits in your life, it’s essential to practice them on the weekends as well as the weekdays; so pick your bedtime wisely and with consistency in mind.
If possible, try to reserve 30 to 60 minutes of your evening before going to bed to practice your bedtime routine. If that isn’t manageable, be sure to spend at least 15 minutes going through your routine. Less than that isn’t much of a routine. Keep in mind that 30 to 60 minutes may feel like a lot at first, but compared to the time you spend lying awake without a routine, the time may not be that excessive after all.
Here are several examples of things you can include in your routine:
- Listen to relaxing music (Look for sleep playlists on Spotify or Pandora)
- Read in bed
- Take a bath
- Turn off all electronic devices
Ideally, try to do the same things at the same time each night so that your body builds a habit that works in your favor.
Why bedtime routines matter
Bottom line: By building a consistent routine into your evening, you can train your brain and body to unwind and go to sleep. Not only do bedtime routines work to improve sleep quality, but by extension, they can enhance the quality of your life. And that’s a pretty good return on investment!