Catching Zzz’s: Why & How

Sleep is a vital human function that affects almost every system in the body, far beyond simply replenishing one’s energy.  For example, good sleep is necessary for important brain functions, such as concentration and memory.  When we are well-rested, we are able to think more clearly, make good decisions, and perform better at work and school.  Regarding our bodies, good sleep is associated with improved immunity and a decreased risk of chronic illness, such as heart disease.  Sleep also assists with growth in children, muscle recovery, athletic performance, faster reaction times, digestion, and metabolism.  From a mental health standpoint, adequate sleep contributes to improved mood and better emotion regulation; our resiliency and ability to modulate our emotions are strongest when our emotional resources are replenished via sleep.  So, as you can see, even though our bodies might be at rest while we sleep, our brains are very active as they work to support all of these important functions.  And yet, despite a lifetime of practice and the innate human need for it, sleep does not come easily to everyone.  Whether it is due to insomnia, stress and worry, or simply being overscheduled, sleep is often sacrificed just when we need it most!

The amount of sleep you need varies across the lifespan.  While babies spend more than half of the day asleep, school-age children require 9-11 hours of sleep, teenagers need 8-10, and adults needs 7-9.  Below are some recommendations for good sleep hygiene:

  • Set a consistent bedtime and waketime and stick to it, even on weekends.
  • Customize your bed to make it comfortable for you!  That includes finding the proper mattress, pillows, and blankets.
  • Sleeping with a weighted blanket can help induce sleep; the deep compression that it offers activates the parasympathetic nervous system to slow one’s heart rate and breathing and therefore reduce stress.  Before using a weighted blanket on children, consult with your pediatrician to determine proper weight/size for safety.
  • Keep your room at a cool temperature; around 65 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal.
  • Visualize yourself in a peaceful environment, such as at the beach or in the rainforest, and imagine what your five senses detect in this soothing place.
  • Keep your room dark and limit excess light whenever possible.  Blackout blinds and eye masks are very useful!
  • Get adequate exercise during the day but refrain from exercise in the two hours before bedtime.
  • Refrain from using screens/electronics for at least an hour before bed.  The blue light in screens suppresses melatonin, which is a hormone released by the brain to induce sleepiness!
  • Avoid naps when possible.  Although they may help you feel more rested during the day, they can throw off your sleep schedule at night and it can be difficult to get back on track.  If a nap feels necessary, limit it to 20-40 minutes during the early afternoon.
  • Establish a nighttime routine that you follow consistently and in the same order each night.  Your brain will start to associate these steps with bedtime, which means you will be relaxed and sleepy by the time you get into bed.
  • Avoid doing anything in your bed except for sleep and intimacy.  Getting into the habit of doing other activities in bed, such as reading or watching TV, teaches your brain to associate your bed with wakefulness and alertness.
  • Limit noise in your environment and use earplugs if necessary.  If silence is unpleasant for you, try listening to soft, lyric-less music or calming ambient sounds on a sound machine.
  • Certain aromas are known to induce relaxation and sleepiness.  Spraying lavender on your pillow can help create a sense of calm as you lie down.
  • If you are unable to sleep after lying in bed for 30+ minutes, get up and do something relaxing and/or boring.  It can be frustrating and stressful to toss and turn sleeplessly, which creates a negative association between you and your bed.  Therefore, if you can’t sleep, try reading in a bedside chair in dim light or picking up your room, and then resume attempts at sleep once fatigue sets in.

As is often the case, sleep hygiene is not a one-size-fits-all model.  You may need to experiment to figure out what works best for you.  Additionally, certain sleep conditions may require a more involved treatment plan.  If you are suffering from sleep apnea, night terrors, severe insomnia, or another type of sleep disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out to a psychologist or your primary care physician for assistance.


Ashley Dennin, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist