Yes, sleep is a skill! Well, managing your sleep patterns is one. Too much sleep is as unhealthy as too little sleep. Also, interrupted sleep is bad for you as well!
So why does sleep hygiene matter, and what is it anyway?
Sleep hygiene covers everything from how you get ready for sleep, right on up to the environment in which you sleep. Having the right environment and the right practices will mean that when you sleep, you enter into the appropriate cycles for your body and mind to rest and recover. Failing to enter those cycles means your sleep is broken and you wake up sometimes more tired than when you went to sleep.
Keeping in mind that each person will have different needs for getting a good night of rest, let’s look at how sleep hygiene helps. The one thing all the research agrees on is routines are important. What routine you use may vary from what I use, and that’s absolutely okay.
Think about what you do when you’re getting ready for bed. Building a new routine is something I’ve worked on recently. I used to have a routine but it basically got shredded with every other routine I had before my spine messed up. I tried to get back into the same routine only to find it irritated me! Keep that in mind as you work on this, you might need to shift your routine at times!
When I’m getting ready for bed, I actually start the winding down around 9:00 PM. I kill the TV, the computers, tablets, and even put the phone down. I walk the dog, which gives me a small burst of exercise, but nothing strenuous. A quiet walk at night is very relaxing, even if she gets squirrely on me. (And man, a 60-ish pound dog can go from beautifully behaved to squirrely beast in about .2 seconds if a cat runs by!)
After the walk, I read for a bit. Sometimes I have a cup of tea. My final shut down alarm goes off at 10. That means it’s time to brush my teeth, do the skin care, check the water bowls for the animals, kill the lights, and get in bed. It’s a long routine, but it works, and generally I’m out cold within minutes now that I’ve established the pattern so my brain knows what I’m doing.
And this is really the reason routines work. Regardless of what the steps are leading up to, if you repeat the same patterns every time you’re about to engage in a certain activity, your brain syncs up just like a computer running a program. Using a routine is, effectively, programming yourself.
This brings us to the sleeping environment. I used to sleep with the curtains open, so I could see the night sky. Now I have them closed so my room is completely dark and the sunrise doesn’t drag me out of bed before anyone should expect me to wake up. I used to play music every night, and once in a while I still do, but the sound tends to break through my sleep more often so I’ve abandoned that practice.
The foundations to a good sleeping environment are universal though.
- A quiet space. (Turn off the TV! Go feral, like me, and refuse to have a TV in the bedroom!)
- A supportive mattress. (More on this in a moment.)
- A pillow that supports your head properly. (Those shaped pillows are nice if you can find one that works for you.)
- Appropriate blankets/sheets. (Being too hot or too cold is a perfect way to wreck your sleep.)
- A slightly cooler room temperature than you have during the day. (It causes your body to want rest by activating an instinctive response. You can search the web for info on that neat trick.)
Beyond these five items, your sleep environment is yours to customize. Have an atomizer or an electric wax melter to fill the air with your favorite aroma. Have a soundtrack of rain falling, soft music, or no sound at all. Have a nightlight, or have complete darkness. It’s all up to you. It might take a little experimentation to find the magic recipe for your ideal sleep zone, but there you go.
One thing I know, and have experienced in my younger days, is the aging of a mattress. Even the memory foam mattresses I now use will eventually wear down. If you can’t afford to replace a mattress right away, check into the mattress toppers. Often you can find one that will suffice to get you back into a comfortable bed.
Another thing, and this is something it took me forever to accept, your bed should only be for sleeping. I grew up entertaining friends, reading, listening to music, drawing, and writing all while perched in various positions on my bed. As a mother, I regularly played with my children on my bed when they were small. When I was in college, I studied on my bed, with books and papers strewn across the blankets around me. I also retreated to bed to read and find a quiet moment for myself. My bed was busy in all the wrong ways!
When you wake up, leave your bed. When it’s time to sleep, go to your bed. Otherwise, don’t use it. I know, it’s comfortable, it’s quiet, it’s private space, it’s all the things you need. Except, by using your bed for all these other things, you don’t let your brain and your body learn that this is a space for sleeping. Sleep becomes a “maybe” when you go to bed. Then you get to lay in bed and stare at the ceiling while you wish you could sleep.
As I mentioned, I didn’t come to understand this fact easily. I had to be forced into it out of necessity. I heard about the research behind it. I read the pop psych articles. I studied the findings from sleep centers. I finally had a therapist demand that I leave my bed for sleep only for one week. It was strange, to say the least, finding other spaces where I felt comfortable enough to do the things I’d been doing in my bed. Yet, my experience followed along with what all the experts agree on. A bed that is reserved for sleeping in will enhance your sleep.
I think everyone is aware of the benefits of truly good sleep. I hope that you find your routine, ideal sleep zone, and all your dreams are good!