7 Nighttime Habits that Help You Get to Sleep

Switch your brain into sleep mode with these simple bedtime routines.

Posted Jan 31, 2018

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When you were a child, if you were fortunate, you had a soothing bedtime routine that helped you go to sleep. Maybe a parent read to you, sang a lullaby, or told you a story. Or maybe you cuddled with your stuffed animals and told them about your day. Whatever your bedtime ritual, repeating it every night gave your brain a signal that it was time to switch into sleep mode.

Developing a relaxing nighttime routine can have a similarly soporific effect for grown-ups. But some common late-night habits—such as watching your favorite crime show or checking your work emails one last time—may actually make it harder to slip into a sound slumber.

So, what should you be doing before hitting the sack? I put that question to a half-dozen experts. Below are their suggestions for nighttime routines that help get you ready for sleep. Although it’s a good idea to start planning for bedtime a couple of hours in advance, many of these simple steps can be done in a few calming minutes at the end of a busy day.

Turn down the lights and volume

Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, a psychotherapist and mental wellness coach, recommends starting the wind-down process about two hours before bedtime. “Turn down the overhead lights and opt for low-powered lamps,” he says. “Gradually lower the volume on your TV and music. This can decrease overall stimulation and sympathetic nervous system arousal.”

Consider powering down your electronic devices with screens. They emit blue light, which suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone involved in the body’s sleep-wake cycle. In one study, people were exposed to blue light-emitting computer screens from 9 to 11 p.m. Their sleep time was reduced by an average of 16 minutes. In addition, their sleep quality was diminished because they woke up more often during the night.

Another option is to use blue light filtering software, apps, or glasses. Still, it’s best to avoid mentally stimulating activities—such as checking social media, catching up on the news, or watching a suspenseful show—as bedtime grows nearer. If you choose to watch TV, Caraballo recommends opting for something light and familiar, such as a sitcom rerun.

Curl up with a comfortable read

If you prefer to unwind before bed by reading, a paper book may be better than a digital one. One study compared reading in bed from an electronic tablet versus a paper book. Tablet users reported feeling less drowsy. And once they dozed off, EEG monitoring showed diminished slow-wave activity—a type of brain activity associated with deep sleep.

Regardless of format, bedtime may not be the best time to tackle a compulsive page-turner. “Books that promote anticipation and excitement can prompt continued reading,” says Houston psychiatrist Jared Heathman, M.D. Instead, he recommends reading—or rereading—passages from a motivational or spiritual book with short chapters. This kind of book is generally positive and uplifting, and you’ll be able to put it down when it’s time for lights out.

Unwind with a soothing playlist

Listening to music is another popular way to relax before bedtime. “There is a definite relationship between the tempo of music and the heart rate of the listener,” says Marc Urselli, a Grammy Award-winning sound engineer and music producer. “For winding down, I recommend slow music (below 90 beats per minute).”

When compiling your bedtime playlist, Urselli suggests avoiding music with a large dynamic range, because a sudden shift to a very loud or very quiet part could be jolting. In addition, he notes that vocals can sometimes interfere with becoming fully absorbed in the tranquil mood of the music. “For relaxing, I always try to choose albums without lyrics or maybe with lyrics in a language I don’t understand,” Urselli says.

Let your personal taste guide your choice of music to relax by. Urselli enjoys selections from the albums “O’o” and “The Dreamers” by John Zorn, “Seria” and “Seria II” by Skúli Sverrisson, “Caesura” by Helios, and “Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks” by Brian Eno.

Reach for an adult coloring book

Approached the right way, filling in the pages of an adult coloring book can be an exercise in mindfulness, and there’s growing evidence that regularly practicing mindfulness may help combat insomnia. “To color mindfully, first set aside some uninterrupted time,” says art therapist Cheryl Walpole, ATR-BC, LCAT, a contributor to The Real Art Therapists of New York Coloring Book. “Then fully focus your attention and energy on the task at hand.”

Compared to, say, painting or sculpting, coloring is a more restful activity. There’s no fuss or mess to contend with—all you need are markers or colored pencils. “You’re just adding color to an image that has already been created,” says Walpole. “But although you have outlines, you can always color outside them. It’s your process, so you can do whatever you want.”

Visualize yourself without a care

Right before bed is an excellent time to practice relaxation through visualization. “Lie down with your eyes closed, and focus on your stomach rising and falling as each breath enters and leaves your body,” says Atlanta psychotherapist Kimberly Lee-Okonya, LCSW. “Once you are relaxed, visualize one of your favorite places, wherever that may be. Engage all your senses—the sight, smell, feel, taste, and sound of the place.”

As an example, Lee-Okonya says that she likes to visualize herself at the beach: “I smell the salt air. I feel the warm grainy sand between my toes. I see blue waters rushing to shore as people pass by with flip-flops in hand. I hear the waves and the laughter of those around me. And I taste a snow cone that I’m enjoying as I walk along.”

If you prefer to be led through the process, recordings of guided visualizations are widely available. You might also check out the Sleep Stories on the Calm app, which are grown-up bedtime stories rich in calming imagery.

Relax with some gentle stretches

Vigorous physical activity is best done earlier in the day, but a little gentle stretching before bed may help your muscles let go of tension. “Physical tension in the body often leads to tossing and turning,” says Rob Cole, LMHC, RD/LDN, clinical director of mental health services at Banyan Treatment Center in Boca Raton, Florida.

Cole recommends holding each stretch for at least 15 seconds while focusing on your breath moving in and out. He says that some people also find it helpful to visualize taffy slowly stretching or tension gradually melting away. “By the time you have finished stretching, you are left feeling refreshed, relaxed, and ready to fall asleep more peacefully,” Cole says.

Make your to-do list for tomorrow

At first blush, this might seem counterintuitive, but jotting down a to-do list right before bed may help you drift off more easily. In a recent study, people were randomly assigned to write for five minutes at bedtime about either things they needed to do in the next few days (to-do lists) or tasks they had completed in the previous few days (completed lists). The to-do list group fell asleep faster than the completed-list group.

Ruminating over all the things you need to do tomorrow can certainly keep you up at night. But this strategy allows you to commit your to-do list to paper rather than running through it over and over in your mind. “I believe this approach works because it allows your mind to rest, as you have assured yourself that you will not forget anything important,” says Lee-Okonya.

When you wake up the next morning, how can you get your day off to a healthy start? Check out these early-morning wellness routines.