My sleep health hit a new low this year. I moved to a new apartment on a loud and busy street corner, which means falling asleep among the honking and chatter became an everyday challenge. And because life is funny like that, my recurring issues with waking up in the middle of the night — usually driven by stress and anxiety — popped back up. Oh, and then I got a puppy. She's certainly cute, but shut-eye is suddenly a distant memory.
I don't know about you, but when I don't get sleep, my mood swings are out of control, I get headaches, and little life mishaps feel horribly overwhelming.
Shamelessly motivated by my own personal issues, I reached out to Dr. Shelby Harris, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist in Westchester, New York, and author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia: Get a Good Night's Sleep Without Relying on Medication, for advice.
Read on for her best pre-bedtime tips for falling asleep faster, plus what to do if you can't stop tossing and turning at 2 a.m. — like me.
Turn Off Electronics and Ease Into Nighttime
I really didn't want it to be true, but Dr. Harris says it's important to cut all screen time an hour before bed and "go old school." That means dim the lights and take part in activities that are quiet and calm outside of your bed instead — meditate, try relaxation exercises, read, do a puzzle, knit, or draw.
"Sleep isn't an on/off switch!" she says. "We must treat our brains like they are on a dimmer switch and ease into nighttime and sleep."
These activities help your brain naturally make melatonin to induce sleepiness, she says. "Melatonin doesn't like bright light and screens, hence the dim light."
If you don't have an hour, try to compromise with 30 minutes.
When I tried the 30-minute method, I locked my phone in my room and spent a half hour playing with my puppy. Fully transparency: it could have been the fact that I was utterly exhausted, but once I climbed into bed I was out in five minutes.
Don't Fall Asleep to Music
Considering there are hundreds of sleep music playlists on Spotify, this tip actually surprised me."It isn't ideal since it isn't a consistent noise and can cause awakenings," Dr. Harris notes.
If you need to fall asleep to a tune, try a white noise machine instead. "White noise is totally fine to block out noises, but if you have chronic insomnia it usually isn't a cure," Dr. Harris explains.
I personally find my white noise machine very helpful in drowning out the noise on my busy street, particularly the sounds of traffic. Many well-reviewed options are available on Amazon for $20 to around $45.
If you use a white noise app, Dr. Harris just suggests putting the phone under your bed.
Sleep Temperature Matters
I'm an extremely hot sleeper, and my tiny bedroom's air flow is nonexistent, so I'm used to throwing my covers on and off all night long.
Lowering my thermostat to around 68 degrees has helped — according to Dr. Harris the 60s are the ideal sleeping temp. "If it is too warm it makes your body struggle to produce melatonin and stay asleep at night, but too cold and you'll be having trouble with shivering!" she explains.
Can't Fall Back Asleep? Get Out of Bed
This seemed counterintuitive to me, but if you're having a tough time falling back to sleep in the middle of the night, leaving your bedroom might be the best idea.
"First and foremost — get out of bed," she says. "Don't lay in bed trying to force sleep to happen. Instead, get up and do something quiet, calm, and relaxing in dim light until you're sleepy. Then, get back to bed once you're sleepy."
I used to lay in bed and scroll through Instagram when I'd wake up at 2 a.m., which is probably the worst thing I could have been doing.
For the past few nights, I've gotten out of bed, checked on my puppy, and then climbed back into bed. I definitely feel more ready to sleep following Dr. Harris's tips than if I went down a social media rabbit hole.
If it's stress that's waking you up in the wee hours of the morning, Dr. Harris suggests adding in meditation. "If you go to sleep with a noisy brain, you're likely to awaken with a noisy brain."