How Lockdown Has Changed Our Sleep Routines

What our current pandemic has done for our sleep—for better and worse.

Posted Jul 09, 2020

Natasha Fedorova/Deposit Photos
Source: Natasha Fedorova/Deposit Photos

Since the earliest days of the coronavirus, scientists have been furiously at work studying its characteristics, searching for treatments and ultimately a vaccine, and investigating its effects—including on sleep. There’s been research that suggests melatonin might have some protective benefits. Researchers are examining the effects of social isolation, economic upheaval, stress, and uncertainty on our nightly rest. 

We’re (mostly) on the other side of a months-long lockdown, and scientific research has begun to reveal ways that broad social quarantine has affected our sleep. This won’t be the last we learn about the effects of this unprecedented global upheaval on sleep. But research now begins to point to specific sleep challenges—and some silver linings around sleep in the age of coronavirus. 

Here are some things we’ve learned so far about what’s happened to our sleep since lockdown, with some advice about how to put this information to work for your sleep, going forward.

Some of us are getting more sleep since lockdown 

That’s one of the takeaways from two just-released (and separate) studies, both published in the journal Current Biology. These studies contain several interesting findings which I’ll talk about. 

One study by scientists at the University of Boulder analyzed the sleep of a group of 139 university students, comparing data collected about their sleep before lockdown to new data collected after lockdown, when students left campus and classes went virtual. Scientists found a large majority of these young adults sleeping more during lockdown than they had been before. Pre-lockdown, 84% said they were sleeping 7 or more hours a night. During lockdown, that number rose to 92%. Sleep in this group increased an average of 30 minutes during the weeknights, and 25 minutes on weekend nights. 

It’s noteworthy that this additional sleep didn’t involve going to bed earlier. The students actually went to bed later during lockdown, and got up later. This makes sense when you recognize that nearly all college-age adults are Wolves: Late bedtimes and wake times are right in sync with their biorhythms. Some adults (like me) stay Wolves throughout their lives.

Another just-published study, conducted across 3 European nations, included more than 400 sleepers. This study also found people sleeping more at night than before stay-at-home became a reality for most of us. 

What next: If you’re a person whose sleep increased during lockdown, that’s great! There are a few important things for you to consider. 

Were you sleep-deprived before lockdown and not aware of it? Odds are the answer to this question is yes. Many people are too busy and too stressed to assess their sleep accurately. A lot of us become quite used to the impact of sleep deprivation on our thinking, our emotions, our energy levels.

Take some time to reflect on what’s different about your life with some additional sleep—and take that new awareness of sleep’s importance with you as you move forward. I just wrote about how most Americans are waking up exhausted. Sleep deprivation is most definitely not a problem that began for most of us in just the past few months. 

How is your sleep quality? I’ll be talking about what scientists are learning of sleep quality during the pandemic in just a minute. The big takeaway to know is this: The benefits of more sleep can’t compensate for poor quality sleep. You need both sufficient amounts of sleep and sound, refreshing sleep to feel and function your best. 

Are you sleeping too much? There is no single amount of sleep that’s right for everyone. But there is definitely such a thing as too much nightly snoozing. Oversleeping—the medical term is hypersomnia –can bring about real health consequences

But wait…are we really sleeping more since lockdown? 

Careful readers will have noticed that I said, “some of us are sleeping more since lockdown.” The reality is, we don’t have enough data to know where sleep amounts have been trending overall since the pandemic began. Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that some people are struggling with less sleep since lockdown. And there’s some preliminary research to back this up, including this recent study that included slightly more than 1,000 adult sleepers between the ages of 18-79. Among them, a very slight majority—53%—said they were sleeping less since lockdown orders went into effect in most parts of the US in March. 

I’m particularly interested in seeing how this breaks down by age and also gender. Individual lives have been very differently affected by the pandemic, and by lockdown and other social measures taken to address the virus. A 20-year old college student (see above) might have an easier time finding extra sleep time during lockdown than a middle-aged parent who’s homeschooling and working from home. A retired older adult might have their daily routine less affected than a millennial who’s gone from working in an office and socializing on the town. 

What next: If you’re among the people whose nightly sleep duration decreased during lockdown, keep in mind you’re not alone, and there’s no competition here—you’re not “losing” at sleeping during lockdown. But you are losing sleep that you need.

To remedy this, start by looking in the areas where your life has changed the most since the pandemic started. Maybe you used to hit the gym after work. The absence of that late-day exercise might be affecting your ability to sleep, so try taking a good long walk before dinner. Maybe your kids’ at-home-all-the-time schedule have you folding laundry at 11:30 p.m., when you used to be sleeping peacefully. Get the kids to help—or let the laundry sit until the next day. The same applies to all the chores that lead you to stay up past your optimal bedtime. If your routines haven’t changed much but your sleep has, take a close look at your stress

If lockdown added a whole bunch of new or different responsibilities to your day, too many to identify just one, then think about what one or two responsibilities you can remove from your plate, in order to allow more time for sleep. You’ll get more done, faster, when you’re rested. 

Sleep Well, Be Well,

Dr. Michael Breus