Written by Samantha Kent
It’s biologically necessary—sleep—and yet it’s so easy to forget about how important it is. You lose consciousness and wake up eight hours later ready to go. But, that’s not exactly how it all goes down. Both children and adults can struggle to get enough rest. However, no matter your age, healthy sleep hygiene can improve the efficiency of your sleep as well as extend the number of hours you’re getting.
Sleep Hygiene: A Term Worth Remembering
Sleep hygiene includes everything in your personal habits and behaviors that contribute to the success of your sleep cycle. The food you eat, a nap, your afternoon caffeine boost, size of your dinner, and exercise routine can all influence when and how well you sleep. The more consistent you can be in your behavior from day to day, the more successful your sleep cycle will be.
Before we jump into how to improve your sleep hygiene, we have to consider how much sleep you need¹. Adults require seven to nine hours but a child’s needs change, depending on his developmental stage. Preschoolers need ten to thirteen hours while teens should be getting anywhere from eight to ten with elementary kids falling somewhere in between.
It should also be noted that everyone is not the same. Some children need less sleep than others and some adults need at least nine hours to be at their best. You can gauge your own and your child’s needs by how you feel mid-morning. Though you may be groggy first thing, once you’re awake, you should feel rested. If you’re drowsy or your brain still feels foggy, you may need more sleep than average or you may not be getting as much sleep as you think.
We’ve broken down the areas where you can improve sleep hygiene by the time of day. As strange as it may sound, sleep success starts as soon as your eyes open.
Early Morning Sunshine
Your morning schedule has more influence over your sleep cycle than you may think. It sets the stage for the rest of your day, laying the groundwork for your nightly sleep cycle.
- Wake-up Time: A consistent wake-up time creates a predictable schedule that the brain will recognize and follow. It then reduces certain hormones like melatonin and releases others to start the wake-up process. Once the wake-up cycle starts, your body temperature rises, and brain waves change in preparation for full alertness.
- Exercise: Exercise is good at any time of day, but we generally recommend exercising early rather than later to avoid strenuous workouts close to bedtime. Exercise helps fatigue the body and keeps all your systems strong and healthy.
- Increased Light Exposure: Sunlight is crucial for your circadian rhythms², which control the sleep cycle. The blue light that filters from the Sun through the atmosphere suppresses sleep hormones. That prepares the body to release sleep hormones once light fades and night falls.
Sleep influencers don’t stop once the afternoon hits. At this crucial time of day, the most important factor to keep track of is your caffeine intake. Caffeine blocks sleep hormones and can stay in your system for several hours. Give yourself at least four hours, though some people will need more time than that, for the caffeine to leave your body.
Energy drinks are especially troublesome for teens. Their high caffeine content can cause issues at an age when teens are already prone to a delayed start to their sleep cycle. These drinks should be avoided starting in the early afternoon.
Food is the other factor to consider in the afternoon. While meal timing³ isn’t quite as influential as light exposure, it plays a part. Try to eat your meals and snacks at regular intervals and at roughly the same time each day. It creates a behavioral pattern that the brain recognizes and follows through to the start of the sleep cycle.
Winding Down the Evening
As bedtime draws near, it’s important to keep to a regular schedule and prepare your mind and body for sleep.
- Early, Light Dinner: Dinner can either make or break bedtime. Try to avoid late meals laden with fat or sugar. If you’re prone to heartburn, avoid acidic foods like citrus, tomatoes, and chocolate.
- A Bedroom Customized to You: Customized sleep means a mattress that suits the sleeper’s preferred position. Side sleepers typically do better on models like memory foam⁴ that conforms to the body. Stomach sleepers need firm support to keep the spine aligned while back sleepers do well with a neutral support mattress. Your weight will also be a factor. The heavier you are the more support you need. People who are on the lighter end of the scale like children may need a softer mattress to sleep comfortably.
- Lead Into Bedtime: You need time to wind down after a long day and so do kids. As bedtime draws near and before you start the bedtime routine, bring the family activity level down. For kids, puzzles or reading a book might be a good option while dimming the lights and playing quiet music. Avoid watching television, tablets, or using laptops. Their blue spectrum light can suppress sleep hormones.
- Routine, Routine, Routine: The human body loves routine; that’s all there is to it. A bedtime routine can work wonders for children (and adults) who struggle to fall asleep. The routine helps the brain recognize when to release sleep hormones and provides an opportunity to burn energy and relieve stress. Start the routine at the same time and perform it in the same order every day.
- Love Your Bedtime: A regular bedtime matters. Just like your wake-up time, the more consistent you are, the easier it is for your brain to correctly time the sleep cycle. Pick a time and stick to it even on weekends.
Good sleep hygiene is just as important as a healthy diet and regular exercise, both of which contribute to your sleep hygiene, by the way. If you make small positive sleep hygiene changes each day, you’ll soon find that sleep comes easier and lasts longer. Be patient and flexible as you develop routines that work for you and your family.
- “How much sleep do I need?”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html.
- Duffy, et al. “Effect of Light on Human Circadian Physiology,” Sleep Medicine Clinics. June 2009, 4(2): 165-177.
- Wehrens, et al. “Meal Timing Regulates the Human Circadian System,” Current Biology. June 2017, pgs. 1768-1775.
- “Best Memory Foam Mattress Reviews,” The Sleep Help Institute. https://www.sleephelp.org/memory-foam-mattress-reviews/.
About Samantha Kent
Samantha Kent is a researcher for SleepHelp.org. Her favorite writing topic is how getting enough sleep can improve your life. Currently residing in Boise, Idaho, she sleeps in a California King bed, often with a cat on her face.