Create a Simple Bedtime Routine to Sleep Better

4 min read

These days, we’re practicing ways to sleep better — together.

Sleep has been a nemesis of mine for as long as I have been an adult. Thankfully, my recovery journey with bipolar disorder has led me to discover some powerful tools for higher-quality sleep — and it’s a joy to share them here with you, one by one.

In previous weeks, we covered how exposure to morning sunlight and evening darkness helps us naturally unlock better sleep.

This week, we’ll target something that will feel very familiar to the parents here and may seem deceptively simple: a soothing, consistent bedtime routine.

Our kids need this, no matter how old they are, and little known fact — adults can benefit from one, too!

Recall Pavlov’s dogs: Repeatedly pairing the sound of a bell with the appearance of food led the dogs to exhibit a strong salivation response to just the sound of the bell on its own — a classically conditioned response.

A bedtime routine works like this, too (though it mixes elements of classical and operant conditioning).

When we come back to the same soothing activities over and over, every evening, we powerfully condition our brains to associate these activities with the physiologic changes that signal transitioning into sleep. With practice, the routine itself can then cue us to switch to relaxing and then sleeping.

A good bedtime routine is relaxing and enjoyable, with elements you look forward to — without being activating.

As an example, here’s what I do (on a good night), after putting my son to bed, around 8:30 pm:

  • Turn the temperature down to what feels cool and comfortable with the blanket in place (depending on where I am, I sometimes include a fan or crack open a window).
  • Change into night clothes.
  • Brush my teeth, wash my face, take my medications (some nights, I do these first steps earlier, with my son).
  • Chat with my husband about anything on either of our minds.
  • Settle into reading a book (fiction—I always need a way to change gears from my day): the length of time I spend here depends on how sleepy I am; some nights, I only read a page or two — other nights, I read for 30 or 40 minutes.
  • I keep a pad and pen handy on my bedside in case I think of any to-dos or stray thoughts I need to ‘dump’ from my brain and return to later; I try to keep my phone far from where I’m sleeping — and on silent.
  • Especially when I’m having a hard time with sleep, I wear blue light-blocking glasses throughout the evening.
  • When I’m sleepy, I turn off the lights, put on my eye mask and earplugs, and focus on my breath as I fall asleep.

Things that I occasionally find myself doing that are decidedly not helpful for a bedtime routine — and I do what I can to avoid these pitfalls:

  • Check my email
  • Doom-scroll
  • Read or listen to the news
  • Check my calendar and make plans for the next workday

So: this week, I empower each of you to establish a bedtime routine if this has gotten away from you or to reboot one you’ve had in the past — and explore how returning to it night after night might help you more reliably get those Zs.

If you’re looking to create one: first, choose an ideal bedtime and then plan to devote 15-60 minutes before that bedtime to the bedtime routine.

Some elements to play with are: reading, journaling, soothing music or sounds, massage, mindful activities like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or visualizations (many apps can help with this, but if using your phone, try to keep your eyes off it, or wear blue light-blocking glasses), stretches or non-activating yoga, rhythmic tapping or rocking, and soothing scents like lavender.

(Rhythmic movements and sounds are worth considering incorporating — they’ve soothed us ever since our days in the womb, when our mother’s heartbeat and diaphragmatic movements would keep us regular, metronomic company. This is why rhythmic white noise and rocking are so soothing to a baby.)

Here’s wishing you solid rest!

A version of this article also appears in my well-being newsletter, Ask Dr Devika B.

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