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Behavioural Strategies for Improved Sleep

Healthy sleep habits are behaviours and routines that help a person to have quality sleep and to feel fresh and alert during the day.  Review the strategies listed below to identify those which you are consistently doing and those that you are not.  For those that you are not doing, taking steps to incorporate them into your routine will contribute to better overall sleep.

Establish a regular sleep routine
This is the best strategy to enhance the quality and quantity of sleep. Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. Maintain this schedule as much as possible, even on weekends.

Ban screens from your bed
Many people surf for a few minutes before going to bed, or check their email or social media when they wake up during the night. The problem is, the light from mobile devices tricks the brain into thinking it is time to be awake. We are also conditioned to be alert and pay attention when we are looking at our phones. This is not a good combination for helping us sleep!

Ideally, your bedroom should be screen-free. If you must have your laptop or TV in your bedroom, make a rule to avoid screens once you are in bed.  Making your bed screen-free may require discipline and new routines. You may need to:

  • keep your phone out of the bedroom after a certain hour
  • buy a cheap alarm clock rather than using your smartphone to wake up
  • reassure yourself that any issue that comes up can wait until morning, that you deserve to have a good night's sleep.

Avoid substances that stimulate, especially in the evening
These include nicotine, decongestants and caffeine. Reduce your caffeine consumption, and stop drinking caffeine earlier in the day to see the difference it makes.

Avoid late meals and liquids in the evening
Going to bed on a full stomach can be uncomfortable and keep you awake. A full bladder will likely lead to a middle-of-the- night bathroom visit, and you may have difficulty falling asleep when you get back to bed.

Avoid alcohol in the evening
Although alcohol can help a person fall asleep, it can cause “rebound stimulation”, which wakes a person up or causes fitful sleep. It blocks REM and restorative sleep, so you wake up feeling tired.

Avoid long naps
Although a short nap can be beneficial, taking long naps or napping close to your bed time can disrupt sleep regulation, making it difficult to fall asleep in the evening.

Take time to wind down before going to bed
You need to be sufficiently relaxed to fall asleep.  Do something relaxing before you go to bed and avoid stimulating activities in the evening.  Stimulating activities include playing video games, having a heated debate, exercising, watching an exciting movie or reading a book that you just can’t put down.  Instead, try the relaxation activities listed below.

Make your bedroom sleep friendly
This includes having a firm, comfortable bed with comfortable sheets and pillow; keeping the room dark and at a comfortable temperature; wearing comfortable clothes that are not too tight or too loose that they will bunch up; and eliminating noise. Ear plugs can help if the noise can’t be reduced.

Use your bed only for sleep, sex and when you are sick
This strengthens the association you make between your bed and sleep. Avoid eating, doing homework, talking on the phone or watching television in bed.

Manage your worry
Excessive worrying can make it difficult to fall asleep. If you are a worrier, take steps to manage your worry. One tool that can be helpful is the “What? Me Worry!?!” workbook. Some people find it useful to keep a pen and paper next to their bed to write down any worries that arise in the night.

Use relaxation techniques
Relaxation strategies can help if you can’t fall asleep because you are too aroused (i.e. stimulated).  They include:

You can find even more relaxation strategies and links on how to do them in the Relaxation Strategies section of the Stress Management section of the Health Services website.

Engage in good health habits
A healthful lifestyle supports good sleep. This includes eating well, engaging in regular physical activity and not smoking.  For information on these topics and other healthy behaviours consult the Healthy Living section.

Associate your bed with sleep
Many people who have ongoing sleep difficulties come to expect that going to bed will lead to another night of tossing and turning. There is good evidence to support an approach called “stimulus control” to overcome this problem. The stimulus control approach involves observing a few rules:

  • Set a consistent wake up time and always get up at that time, regardless of whether you have had a good night’s sleep or not
  • Avoid napping during the day
  • Go to bed only when you feel sleepy
  • Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep. Leave the bed after 15 minutes if you are not asleep. Go to another room and do something light and relaxing. Return to bed only when you feel sleepy. If you still cannot fall asleep, get out of bed after 15 minutes and go to another room until you feel sleepy etc.
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