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How to Sleep Better: Tips for Patients and Families

Good sleep habits are important for overall health and well-being. Doing certain things help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep, and be more alert during the day. Just like good nutrition and exercise, good sleep habits work best if you do them each day.

Keep a regular sleep schedule.

Go to bed and wake up about the same time every day. School or work days should be about the same as weekends and holidays. Try to stay within one hour of your normal schedule.

Have a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine.

Make the 30 minutes before bed a quiet time. Do not watch TV or use electronic devices. Put away phones, tablets, and game consoles. Avoid exercise and vigorous play near bedtime. Try relaxing activities such as reading a book or listening to soothing music.

Create a place that is only for sleeping.

As much as possible, try to make a comfortable, dark, and quiet place for sleep. Keep the bedroom temperature cool, under 70 degrees. Remove electronic devices from the room. Try to limit potential disruptions such as noise or people coming in or out of the room.

Eat a light snack before bed.

Having a light snack before bed can help sleep. Good choices include milk, yogurt, cheese, cereal, crackers, or fresh fruit. Make sure that snacks do not have caffeine or large amounts of sugar. Avoid heavy meals at bedtime. Eating too much before lying down can cause heartburn and interfere with sleep.

Avoid caffeine after 4 p.m. or within 6 hours of bedtime.

Many foods and drinks have caffeine. You probably know that sodas, coffee, tea, and energy drinks often have caffeine. Some juice drinks, gum, and candy bars can also have caffeine. Caffeine can also be found in certain medicines.

Exercise during the day, but avoid vigorous activity at bedtime.

Physical activity during the day can help sleep at night. Try to exercise in the morning or afternoon. Limit intense physical activity at night, especially right before bed.

Get sunlight during the day.

Exposure to sunlight and bright light in the daytime helps set a good sleep/wake rhythm. Increase your exposure to natural light, especially in the morning. Limit bright light at night, and turn off electronic devices 1-2 hours before bedtime.

Plan naps so they don’t get in the way of nighttime sleep.

Many people find that a 20-30 minute nap helps them feel more rested and have more energy. Naps can be especially important for young children and teens who need more sleep. Patients with narcolepsy may be more alert after a brief nap. However, naps can interfere with sleep at night. Do not nap late in the day, and avoid naps if you have trouble falling asleep at night.

Get out of bed instead of tossing and turning.

If you can’t fall asleep after 20-30 minutes, it can help to get up and do a relaxing activity. Read a book, listen to soothing music, drink warm milk, or try deep breathing or meditation. Keep lights low. Do not turn on the TV or use your smartphone or other device. The blue light from electronic devices can make it harder to get back to sleep. Go back to bed when you feel sleepy again.

Answers to Common Sleep Questions

  1. Unfortunately, you can’t really catch up on sleep. Getting extra hours of sleep does not make up for lost sleep. Sleeping too little one day and too much the next can change the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. This can lead to sleep problems or poor sleep quality. As much as possible, try to keep a consistent sleep schedule, and get the recommended hours of sleep each day.

  2. The amount of sleep a person needs varies by age. Children and teens need more sleep compared to adults. Each person may differ slightly in the amount of sleep he or she needs to function best.

    General guidelines for recommended total hours of sleep per day by age:

    Age Sleep
    Newborns (0-3 months) 14-17 hours
    Infants (4-11 months) 12-15 hours
    Toddlers (1-2 years) 11-14 hours
    Preschoolers (3-5 years) 10-13 hours
    School age (6-13 years) 9-11 hours
    Teens (14-17) 8-10 hours
    Adults (18+) 7-9 hours

    Suggested ranges are based on total hours of sleep in a 24-hour period including daytime naps.

  3. Each person needs a certain amount of sleep for optimal physical, mental, and emotional health. You might think that you do ok with less sleep, but you probably don’t function as well as you could.

  4. The body works on a sleep-wake cycle called a circadian rhythm. Biological and environmental signals help regulate this cycle. Genetics, hormones, and other physical factors can help shift the cycle in one direction or the other. So, there is probably some truth to being a morning person or night owl. But, behaviors and environment can also influence the body’s circadian rhythm. Exposure to light, including light from electronic devices, can make it hard to fall asleep at night. Waking and bedtime habits, physical activity during the day, and what you eat and drink can also affect the sleep-wake cycle.

  5. The blue light from phones, TV, and other electronic devices can interfere with sleep. This is due to blue light’s effect on the circadian rhythm. Light exposure helps regulate the production of a sleep hormone called melatonin. Sunlight or bright light during the day and darkness at night is important to keep the body’s internal clock on schedule. Exposure to blue light near bedtime decreases melatonin, increases alertness, and can shift the sleep-wake cycle to make it hard to fall asleep. Nighttime blue light exposure can also decrease sleep quality during the night. Make sure to turn off electronic devices 1-2 hours before bedtime for healthy sleep.

  6. Results from early studies on the benefits of weighted blankets are mixed. More research is needed to know whether weighted blankets can help people sleep better. Weighted blankets can be dangerous for young children and should not be used for infants. If you decide to try a weighted blanket, make sure that the blanket is not too heavy or causes you to be too warm. The blanket should give a gentle pressure but not restrict movement. Patients with medical conditions or who have problems with breathing, circulation, or body temperature should not use a weighted blanket unless recommended by a doctor. Talk to your doctor to make sure that it is safe before trying a weighted blanket.

  7. If counting sheep helps you relax or distracts you from worries, then it might be worth a try. But counting sheep probably doesn’t work for everyone and may even delay sleep for some. Sleep experts often recommend relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation to aid sleep.

Resources for More Information on Sleep