- Sleep hygiene can include any habit that helps you wind down before bed and get the rest you need.
- Poor sleep hygiene, or habits that disrupt your internal clock, can cause sleep issues.
- For better sleep hygiene, consider a wind-down routine, soothing bedroom, and low-key activities.
Sleep hygiene refers to the habits and environment you need for a good night's sleep. Up to 56% of Americans have trouble sleeping, but anyone can benefit from good sleep hygiene, not just people with insomnia.
Dr. Peter Hauri coined the term "sleep hygiene" in 1977. He was the first to suggest you should keep clocks out of your bedroom and avoid trying to force sleep when not tired. Hauri's methods were highly successful and helped establish today's widely-used guidelines for treating insomnia without medication and promoting healthy sleep — including sleep hygiene.
Today, sleep hygiene is a public health priority, particularly because sleep affects both your physical and mental health.
Here's what you need to know about sleep hygiene.
What does it mean to have poor sleep hygiene?
"Key signs of poor sleep hygiene include not getting enough sleep or having a hard time falling or staying asleep," says Pauline Peck, a psychologist in private practice.
Poor sleep hygiene often results from long-standing sleep habits that negatively affect your ability to fall asleep, such as:
- Inconsistent sleep times: One 2016 sleep hygiene study of 3,091 people found that 74.8% of participants had irregular sleep schedules. Waking up and sleeping at different times on work days, weekends, and vacations can disrupt your circadian rhythm, resulting in worse sleep.
- Daytime naps: If you nap late in the day, you most likely won't feel sleepy at your usual bedtime. But that means you short yourself on sleep, which might lead to another nap the next day — and so the cycle continues.
- Stimulating mental activities: High-stress mental activities, like work before bed, can be bad for sleep hygiene. But you may not realize planning for something exciting, like a vacation, can also keep you up, since both are mentally stimulating.
- High-intensity exercise: Working out within 2 or 3 hours before bedtime can increase adrenergic activation and delay your natural sleep onset.
- Substances: Stimulating substances like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can also disturb sleep and contribute to poor sleep hygiene.
- Non-sleep activities in bed: It's best to avoid television or smartphone use in bed since the blue light from screens can delay your body's release of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate sleep. Even reading or homework could lead you to associate your bed with wakefulness.
- An uncomfortable environment: It's often harder to get quality sleep in hot temperatures. Sleeping in warm clothes or on an uncomfortable mattress can also make it difficult to fall asleep.
How can poor sleep hygiene affect your well-being?
Sleep deprivation from poor sleep hygiene can leave you feeling exhausted and irritable, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"Our higher-level functioning suffers, so we may not engage in activities that are good for us," Peck says.
"Poor sleep hygiene tends to breed more poor sleep hygiene," Peck says. For example, you might end up overconsuming caffeine to accomplish your daily activities, which can make it harder to get proper sleep the next night.
A pattern of poor sleep hygiene can contribute to:
- Sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea, which increase your risk of long-term health issues like heart disease and type 2 diabetes
- Impaired immune function resulting from an autoimmune condition, infection, or certain medications
- Hormone dysregulation, including melatonin and cortisol
- Slower metabolism, which could contribute to unwanted weight gain over time
Your sleep habits can also affect your mood.
"Poor sleep hygiene can manifest as irritability, moodiness, or forgetfulness. This may cause increased conflict with your partner, struggling at work, and an increased risk of depression," says Amy Sarow, doctor of audiology with experience in treating sleep issues.
How to improve sleep hygiene
You have a range of options when it comes to improving your sleep hygiene before bed.
Create a soothing sleep environment
Your bedroom should be a clean, dark, quiet, and comfortable place.
To make it more restful:
- Consider opting for blinds or room-darkening curtains
- Use a fan or air conditioning to keep the temperature between 60 °F and 67 °F
- Play white noise, wear earplugs, or invest in noise-canceling headphones if outside noise makes it hard to fall asleep
Build a routine
Doing specific activities in the same order can signal your body that bedtime is approaching, so it often helps to establish a pattern of relaxing behaviors you can practice every night before bed.
Sarow, who currently works as a coach in private practice, suggests spending an hour every night before bed winding down with a relaxing activity. "Write in a journal, read a book, do some adult coloring, or try some meditation," Sarow says.
Focus on your body
Focusing on breathing and relaxing your body can give you something to focus on instead of the next day's stressors or other anxious thoughts.
"To help prepare your body to physically relax and fall asleep naturally, you can incorporate progressive muscle relaxation," Sarow says. This activity involves tensing and relaxing each muscle group to release stress and decompress.
Engage your senses
High-quality sleep can't happen without the right environment, and your five senses are a crucial component. Sensory changes like cracking a window or taking a warm bath before bed can improve your sleep hygiene.
"Warm tea, pleasant-smelling candles or oils, and wearing soft, comfortable clothing can help," Peck says.
Toss the guilt — and the clock
If you feel frustrated because you can't fall asleep, you shouldn't stay in bed.
It's fine to get up after 15 minutes of sleeplessness and do something relaxing until you feel tired.
If you frequently check the clock, worrying about the sleep you're missing, hide your clock or turn it around to avoid further stress.
Sleep hygiene doesn't just happen at night
A few daytime habits you can use for better sleep hygiene include:
Wake up to sunlight
"Upon waking, we need time for our bodies and brains to wake up properly so we can wind down effectively at night," Sarow says.
Exposing yourself to bright outdoor light first thing in the morning helps reset your sleep-wake cycle so that your brain recognizes when you should wake up, which in turn lets it know when to fall asleep.
If natural light is a no-go because you work at night, sunrise alarm clocks can simulate a sunrise effect via soft orange and yellow LED lights for a gentle wake-up experience.
Work out during the day
If you're hoping to sleep better at night, you might try working out during the day.
Working out in the morning, in particular, plays a vital role in sleep hygiene because it improves sleep length and quality. Morning workouts can also regulate your circadian rhythm.
Check in on your stress
Reducing the amount of stress in your day can improve your ability to fall asleep. "Checking in, reflecting on, processing, and handling your difficult emotions throughout the day will help you not stockpile them for the nighttime," Peck says.
She adds that small habits, like drinking enough water and taking short breaks from work, help you deal with stress as it arises.
When to get professional support
Good sleep hygiene can be hard to practice if you've spent years without it.
Sleep disorders, mental health conditions, and pregnancy can all play a role in sleep difficulties. A healthcare professional can offer more support in determining the causes of sleep and sleep hygiene troubles.
"If you're struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep, or you're not feeling rested no matter how long you sleep, I'd encourage you to talk to a medical professional," Peck says.
Sleep hygiene is a key component of overall health and well-being.
"No one can operate on 3-4 hours of sleep without major negative consequences. People want to convince themselves that they've trained their bodies to be okay with sleep deprivation, but you can't cheat biology that way," Peck says.
Paying attention to your sleep hygiene is one of the clearest paths to better sleep. If you experience consistent sleep problems or exhaustion that won't go away, it's time to talk with a clinician about the best treatment options for you.