If you find yourself lying in bed scrolling through TikTok in the dark, wondering why sleep won’t come, you’re not alone: 14.5 percent of American adults reported having trouble falling asleep most or every day over a 30-day period in 2020. People have difficulty falling and staying asleep for a number of reasons, ranging from stress and caffeine too late in the day to side effects from drugs and sleep apnea.
However, sleep isn’t an on-off switch, but a ramp, says sleep psychologist Jade Wu, author of Hello Sleep: The Science and Art of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications. You can’t expect to fall into slumber the moment your head hits the pillow. In fact, your body needs some preparation and encouragement to head down that ramp. A bedtime routine will smooth that transition into sleep, signaling to your body it’s time to unwind. “Even when you’re still awake and puttering around, putting on pajamas,” Wu says, “your body is starting to go down that ramp.”
There’s no “perfect” bedtime routine. Rather, you’ll want to try soothing exercises and rituals that work for your timeframe and lifestyle. If you can dedicate an hour, that’s great; if all you have is 15 minutes, that works, too. What’s more important than the content or duration of your wind-down is to do it around the same time every day, experts say, to help keep your circadian rhythm regulated.
Here are some suggestions for how to craft a bedtime routine, according to sleep experts.
Two to three hours before bed
While you definitely don’t need to devote a ton of time to a bedtime routine, you’ll want to set yourself up for success well before you hit the sheets. Avoid eating a heavy meal, consuming alcohol, and smoking within two hours of when you hope to be asleep, says Abhinav Singh, a medical review expert at SleepFoundation.org and the medical director of the Indiana Sleep Center. Additionally, stay away from spicy foods and foods high in sugar about three hours before bed, says Shelby Harris, the director of sleep health with Sleepopolis. Food and alcohol can keep your body temperature elevated and your metabolism active, Wu says, which aren’t amenable for sleep. You should avoid caffeine far before this point — eight hours prior to bedtime, Harris says.
If you hope to be asleep by 11 pm, curb your food and alcohol consumption between 8 pm and 9 pm. You can have a light snack closer to bed should you get hungry.
One hour before bed
Start to turn off or dim the lights in your house and bedroom about an hour before you want to get some shuteye, Singh says. Draw the blinds in your bedroom to keep out any light from the street or neighborhood. If your room is still bright, you may need blackout curtains, Wu says, or an eye mask for when you eventually fall asleep. Adjust the temperature in your room or home to a few degrees cooler. “Your melatonin levels are shown to rise more efficiently when the environment is cooler,” Singh says.
Power off as many devices as you can or put these electronics on Do Not Disturb to minimize arousing distractions and notifications. “Sometimes we have multiple devices going at a time: TV and your phone and your watch,” Wu says. “There’s always stimulation coming from all sides.” Turn down the screen brightness or turn on night mode on any devices you might still be using. (Yes, you have permission to use tech before bed — sparingly — Wu and Singh say.) You can also dedicate a page or folder on your phone’s home screen to apps you only use at night, like a library app, white noise app, and a game app, “so you don’t end up going down a TikTok hole,” Wu says.
If you have the time and interest, Singh recommends a warm bath or shower around this time. Baths can help lower your body temperature and encourage sleepiness. A foot bath can also be a soothing part of a nighttime routine, Wu says.
15–30 minutes before bed
Now is when you’ll really want to start slowing down. Turn on your white noise machine or app if a noisy environment prevents you from falling or staying asleep. A small snack combining protein and a carbohydrate — like a banana with peanut butter, a whole wheat cracker with low-fat cheese, oatmeal, Greek yogurt, or cherries — can promote sleep, Harris says. Feel free to sip on a decaf cup of tea, Singh says. But he and Wu caution against relying on any of the teas that claim to promote drowsiness as a sleep aid. “The amount of substances that it contains that actually can help you sleep are low,” Singh says.
Try a calming activity, like stretching, meditation, reading, listening to relaxing a podcast or music, crocheting, or doing your skincare routine. Avoid anything that is too goal-oriented causing you to delay sleep, like completing a work project or finishing a level in a video game. “If you know it’s going to take you a couple hours to feel satisfied, just be honest with yourself about what really jazzes you up,” Wu says. “Don’t get into something that’s going to be so stimulating or goal-oriented that just keeps you going.” Similarly, loud music, gripping TV, or a scary movie can be too energizing and won’t lull you to sleep, Singh says.
To offload any lingering stress, try journaling for a few minutes, Wu says. Committing the details of your day to paper, or Google doc, can improve mental health. You can write your thoughts down on either your phone or with a pen and paper. Cuddling with your children, partner, or pets can also be calming, she adds.
If you’d still like to utilize electronics, again, keep the brightness and volume low. Minimize your gaming, reading, and viewing to 10 to 20 minutes, Singh says, regardless of whether you’re using a smartphone, tablet, or television.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to perform your nighttime routine in bed, Wu says. If you start to doze off while reading on the couch or doing a puzzle at the dining room table, you won’t accidentally wake yourself up when you relocate to the bedroom. “You don’t need to treat sleep as if it’s fragile,” she says, “or if it’s going to run away from you.”
It’s okay if you still aren’t feeling sleepy by this point. However, don’t force yourself to stay in bed. Instead, move to another room to read a book or engage in another calming practice, Singh says. Then come back to bed only when you’re sleepy.
Don’t beat yourself up if your bedtime routine isn’t initially successful or if you can’t squeeze one in. Parents and caretakers may not have the time or flexibility to wind down at night. A roommate’s lifestyle could interfere with your desire to occupy the bathroom for 20 minutes. Make do with what you have, experts say. Maybe swap a bath for a guided meditation or opt for a book over a podcast. If all you have is 10 minutes, consider jotting down a few thoughts to help you unwind. Be flexible and don’t overthink a bedtime routine: Just do what you find enjoyable and relaxing.
“This is not yet another chore or another thing you should feel guilty about if you don’t do [it],” Wu says. “Think of it more as you’re treating yourself. You’re giving yourself this last 20 minutes of the day to just have no obligations, no responsibilities.”