29 science-backed tips for better sleep.

We designed this guide for parents who want to make better sleep habits, and for parents who can’t fall asleep because of stress or other issues. It has two parts:

  • Lifestyle Habits for a Good Night of Sleep
  • Sleep Aids and Hacks

Studies show that many parents are chronically sleep deprived. Sleep disorders are becoming more prevalent. It’s worse for new moms, many of whom are “dangerously exhausted” for months.
Lack of sleep puts an ultimate burden on people’s health, happiness, creativity, and productivity.
Myriad studies show that sleep deprivation puts a terrible burden on people’s health, happiness, creativity, and productivity.

Getting better sleep is one of the best things a person can do to improve their quality of life.

The suggestions below are well-documented and supported by science. Still, you should check with your doctor before taking melatonin, magnesium or any other over-the-counter supplements. Many medications cause sleeplessness, so talk to your doctor about that too.

When to Seek Professional Help

You should see a doctor or therapist if you’re experiencing the “rule of threes”: sleeplessness that happens three times a week, keeps you awake for at least 30 minutes, and continues for at least 30 days. Read about the effectiveness of sleep therapy for serious insomnia here.

Bed

“8 hours” of sleep is a guideline, not a rule.

Even our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably didn’t sleep for eight hours straight.  Also, occasional trouble with sleep is normal. Every person truly has a unique system with its own biological clock and requirements for sleep.

Be Your Own Little Sleep Study

To improve your sleep long-term, you have to become your own little sleep study. Document the process and results of trying new sleep routines. For many people, the easiest way to do this is on their phone. (Just don’t spend too long staring at it in bed, as you’ll note below.)

Remember, Quality of Sleep > Hours of Sleep

A study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research showed that quality of sleep is farm more important than quantity of sleep when it comes to waking up refreshed.

Lifestyle Habits for a Good Night of Sleep

Get Enough Bright Outdoor Light

Multiple studies have shown that exposure to sunlight during the day helps people sleep better at night. For example, this study found that “Office workers with more light exposure at the workplace tended to have longer sleep duration and better sleep quality.”

That’s because high-intensity light (like the light from the sun) helps our bodies set and regulate a healthy circadian rhythm.

Too little bright light exposure during the day and then too much artificial light exposure throw our bodies out of sync, making it harder to experience healthy sleep.

Get Some Exercise

Multiple studies show that even moderate exercise like walking helps people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

 Don’t Bring Your Phone to Bed

Woman Wakes up for Work and Checks Messages

This is a tough one because many of us read on our phones in bed to help us fall asleep. However, there’s ample evidence that looking at a digital screen right before bed (or in bed) disrupts sleep. This is a growing problem with a significant impact.

Update Your Caffeine Strategy 

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Simply put, if you have trouble sleeping, you shouldn’t drink anything with caffeine within 6 hours of sleep. A broader recommendation is to skip caffeine entirely after 2:00 PM.

Dependent on a person’s gender and biology, the half-life of caffeine in the body is roughly 5-10 hours. But if you drink a cup of coffee at 4:30 PM, its caffeine is still with you at 10:30 PM.

The study “Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed” found that:

“The magnitude of reduction in total sleep time suggests that caffeine taken 6 hours before bedtime has important disruptive effects on sleep and provides empirical support for sleep hygiene recommendations to refrain from substantial caffeine use for a minimum of 6 hours prior to bedtime.”

More studies on caffeine and sleep. 

Caffeine can also contribute to the sleep disorder known as Restless Leg Syndrome, which is often experienced by pregnant women. In those cases, cutting caffeine entirely is recommended.

Follow Simple Eating Strategies for Better Sleep

Stocksy_txp1cff41fe3Oj000_Original_142384Sleeping on a full stomach is terrible for sleep quality. It’s also terrible for your digestive system. After a meal, the stomach requires three to four hours to empty.

However, in some cases, a (small) late-night snack can help you sleep. Via Lifehacker,  The Sleep Medicine Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center explains:

“A bedtime snack can help stabilize your blood sugar levels, particular if you eat dinner early or have a very active day. That’s important because low blood sugar can keep you up at night, as well as make it difficult to wake up feeling energized the next morning. Your body needs energy, even for sleep.”

Look for simple foods that are higher in protein and fat, and avoid sugar and spicy, greasy foods that contribute to stomach acid. Skip chocolate too, since that has sugar and caffeine.

Blood levels of melatonin significantly increase after eating a banana, pineapple and orange. My grandmother told me that a couple of saltines with peanut butter would help anyone sleep, and that’s still what works for me.

Suggestions from “The Best and Worst Foods for Sleep” on Greatist include:

  • Low-fat milk and whole grain cereal
  • Peanut butter on whole wheat bread
  • Yogurt with half a banana and one tablespoon of chopped walnuts
  • Two cups plain popcorn with a drizzle of olive oil

Does eating a small snack before bed make you fat? Surprisingly the jury is out on this one. In fact, it might even help people lose weight over time.

Another tip about eating and sleep: move around a bit after you eat, so your food can start to move out of your stomach.

Reduce the Booze

Having a nightcap before bed may make you feel sleepy, but it fragments your sleep. (Alcoholics don’t have many dreams for this reason.)

Simply put, to sleep better, don’t drink alcohol.

Turn Down the Heat

Sleeping in a cool room is one of the best ways to give your body a hint that it’s time to go to bed. Indeed, being too warm is what keeps many people from falling asleep.

In this Lifehacker article, Dr. Rebecca Robbins says that 65 degrees is the optimal sleeping temperature. She also says that sleeping in a too-warm room can induce nightmares.

Can’t turn the temperature down? Stick a foot out from under the covers, as shown in this video from New York Magazine.

 Be Careful With Naps

15-25 minutes (a.k.a. catnap): Because you don’t fall into a deep sleep in this amount of time, it’s easier to hit the ground running after waking up. This short bout of sleep has been proven to help with alertness and concentration, mood elevation, and sharpening motor skills.

A study on pilots found that a 25-minute in-flight nap (while the plane is manned by a copilot of course) enhanced performance by 34 percent and overall alertness by 54 percent.

(Master the Coffee Nap)

Sleep In As Dark A Room As Possible

The presence of light (natural or artificial) in our nighttime sleeping area can have a huge influence on our ability to sleep. That’s because our bodies and brains tune into light levels to manage chemicals in our blood that regulate our sleep cycles. Exposure to room light before bedtime shortens melatonin duration by about 90 minutes compared to dim light exposure. Exposure to room light during usual hours of sleep suppresses melatonin levels by more than 50%.

Don’t Stress About Waking Up During the Night

You may have heard about second sleep. Human beings seem to be designed to wake up at night, and stay awake for an hour or more. Historian A. Roger Ekirch has documented  references to this pattern through history, up until the advent of artificial light.

If you wake up like this, don’t stress and create more sleeplessness by worrying about it. Slate notes that Clark Strand, the author of Waking Up to the Dark, suggests recognizing the value of “that nighttime interval of wakefulness,” “an hour in the middle of the night where peace was there for the having … a nightly blessing.”

More about Segmented Sleep.

Try to get to bed at the same time every night.

Just as babies and children benefit from a consistent, simple bedtime routine, so do adults. The routine is a cue that helps your mind and body begin to wind down. For many people, a consistent bedtime and time to wake up help them sleep best. The Mayo Clinic recommends this practice even on holidays and weekends.

Sleep Aids and Hacks

TLDR; melatonin, magnesium supplement, light snack, eye mask, ear plugs 

Sleepy Tea

Millions of people swear by valerian, passionflower, and chamomile tea for soothing sleep, or reach for special blends like Yogi Bedtime or Celestial Seasoning’ Sleepytime Tea.

Passionflower appears to be best-documented tea for sleep. Slate reports on a 2011 study that “sleep quality showed a significantly better rating for passionflower compared with placebo.”

However, the warmth of the tea and the process of making it can help people relax. It’s worth trying these teas to see if they help you sleep.

Take a Bath

Taking a warm bath is a great way to unwind before bed for a better nights sleep. Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that soaking in warm water daily for 8 weeks is more effective at easing anxiety than a prescription drug.

Bring a cup of tea to the bath and use lavender scented soap to combine the suggestion above and the suggestion below.

Aromatherapy

Lavander is the best-documented scent to help people get better sleep. Many people sleep with a lavendar pillow for just this reason. 

Here are other oils and scents that can help you sleep.

Put the Spouse on the Couch

If you need sleep, be honest with yourself and your partner. If they’re keeping you up at night from snoring, sweating, or stealing the blankets, it’s better for everyone if you sleep alone to get healthy sleep.

They won’t like it at night, but in the long run they’ll appreciate it.

Wear a Sleep Mask

Sleep masks aren’t just for traveling. They can help block faint light that can keep people from falling asleep without knowing about it. Even Insomnia.net recommends sleep masks.

You don’t need anything fancy. The best-selling, top-rated sleep mask on Amazon.com is just $13.00.

If It’s Safe, Wear Earplugs

Don’t wear earplugs if you’re the only one home with your kids. Some of them do their job too well, and it’s possible you’ll sleep through calls for help and other important noises.

But if you can safely be earplugs, the can help create a cocoon-like experience. Two top-rated brands for sleeping include Hearos Xtreme Protection and Hearos Ultimate Softness Earplugs.

Even Better, Play Max Richter’s “Sleep.”

“Sleep” is easily the most beautiful album made this year . . . He has made something that can comfort grief, battle insomnia and allow the body to journey to strange new places.  –  Record Review 10/15

A work of “high-class chillout music” composed on piano, organ, synthesizers, and electronics that’s meant to help people experience a beautiful night of sleep. Get all the different versions here. Read more about it on NPR here.

Want sleep-friendly headphones? Review this list on Reddit of “the best headphones to sleep in.”

“Sleep” is easily the most beautiful album made this year . . . He has made something that can comfort grief, battle insomnia and allow the body to journey to strange new places.  –  Record Review 10/15

Don’t Count Sheep, Imagine Relaxing Scenes Instead

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In this study, scientists at Oxford University found that people fell asleep 20 minutes sooner when they imagined a relaxing scene vs counted sheep.

The researchers suggested that counting sheep is too boring while images are more interesting. More from the NYT.

Practice Deep Breathing

This is the practice of tracking and following breathing to let your body gradually relax. You simply intentionally redirect your attention to your breathing and your body, and you lay in bed.

This is a highly studied, well-documented method for calming mind and body.

Masturbate or Have Sex

I know this might be a bit much for some readers, but masturbation is reported to help people invoke sleep. Others say it stimulates them and keeps them up. Having sex can relax the body. It also causes the body to release of oxytocin that can promote rest.

On the other hand (heh), some people say sex or masturbation stimulates them and keeps them up. You probably know what works for you, so just do or don’t do that.

Try Magnesium Supplements

Magnesium plays a key role with sleep. WebMD notes that even a marginal lack of magnesium can prevent the brain from settling into sleep while the National Institute of Heath also notes that people in the US consistently intake less magnesium than recommended amounts.

WebMD notes that “An easy way to remember foods that are good magnesium sources is to think fiber. Foods that are high in fiber are generally high in magnesium.” Good sources include green leafy vegetables, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, and almonds.

Some people who struggle to sleep benefit from taking a 350 mg oral magnesium supplement daily, or at least 45 minutes before bed.

For example, a study on the “effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly,” researchers found that “dietary magnesium supplementation brought about statistically significant increases in sleep time.”

NIH recommends looking for the mineral in aspartate, citrate, lactate, and chloride forms, which are more bioavailable than magnesium oxide and magnesium sulfate.

Take 200 milligrams of magnesium—lower the dose if it causes diarrhea—and 600 milligrams of calcium each night.

The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends taking a “B-vitamin complex along with magnesium, or a multivitamin containing B vitamins because the level of vitamin B6 in the body determines how much magnesium will be absorbed into the cells.”

Magnesium can interact with many different  medications, and too much of it can cause serious health issues. Check with your doctor before taking any supplement.

Try Melatonin

A recent Chinese study in hospitals found that patients slept best after taking a melatonin tablet and wearing an eye mask and earplugs. They also found melatonin was the most effective part of helping people sleep.

Melatonin’s  main job in the body is to regulate night and day cycles or sleep-wake cycles. Darkness causes the body to produce more melatonin, which signals the body to prepare for sleep. Light decreases melatonin  production and signals the body to prepare for being awake. Some people who have trouble sleeping have low levels of melatonin. It is thought that adding melatonin from supplements might help them sleep.

Melatonin is the only medication Canada recognizes for children: “Of the several medications studied in the treatment of insomnia in children, only melatonin is considered safe and effective for short-term use” Page on nih.gov

As such, it has minimal side effects, but no compound that can affect the brain is without risks. According to WebMD:

“Melatonin has been used safely for up to 2 years in some people. However, it can cause some side effects including a headache, short-term feelings of depression, daytime sleepiness, dizziness, stomach cramps, and irritability. Do not drive or use machinery for four to five hours after taking melatonin.” 

Individuals with medical conditions should consult their doctors before taking melatonin, and there is a concern that long-term use of melatonin in children might alter normal development.

Although some experts recommend taking higher doses, studies show that lower doses are more effective. Plus, there’s concern that too-high doses could cause toxicity as well as raise the risk of depression or infertility. Typically take 0.3 to 0.5 milligrams before bed.

Lose Weight

I know – vastly easier said than done. But in the long run, losing weight will markedly help anyone sleep. Excess weight is one of the main causes of sleep apnea.

For Severe, Prolonged Difficulty Sleeping, Try Therapy

After completing therapy, on average, patients fell asleep almost 20 minutes faster and were awake in the middle of the night almost half an hour less, the study found. And the time they spent sleeping soundly increased by nearly 10 percent.

A recent analysis published in Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that in over 20 studies of cognitive behavioral therapy in adults, therapy is consistently effective at treating insomnia.

That’s all to say…

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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