1. Routine: Stick to routine wake times, >5 days a week
Two independent processes control your sleep. Firstly, there is a sleep pressure which builds up gradually the longer you’ve been awake. Secondly, there’s your body clock. In fact, every cell in the body has its own molecular clock, programmed to operate on a 24 hour ‘circadian’ rhythm. When we stick to the same wake up time and bedtime (even if you’re also juggling kids’ sleep times), our body clocks are more likely to hum along in synchrony. Haphazard routines, or night shifts, put more pressure on bodily functions, and mean the brain is less prepared for sleep. If a standard bedtime is a struggle, aim to wake up within an hour of the same time, 7 days a week.
2. Energise strategically with light, exercise and healthy food
A good blast of bright light in the morning helps us feel alert, whereas dimming the lights after sunset triggers the release of the hormone melatonin, which signals the brain that it’s time for sleep. This is extra-useful with kids too, avoiding the television or tablets in the hour before bed, and getting used to a dark bedroom from a young age, can help them get to sleep, and stay asleep. Exercise helps pep us up, and has the added benefit of aiding deep sleep at night. Food also sends a wake-up signal, so avoid large meals two hours before bed. Caffeine temporarily masks sleep pressure. Excess caffeine means you can lose track of how much sleep you need, and it can make sleep lighter. If you’re struggling with sleep, try switching to decaf, especially in the afternoon.
3. Switch off from stress: wind down before bed
Parents know that a consistent bedtime routine is essential for their hyperactive toddlers, but it’s good news for adults too. Give yourself an hour to unwind - that means no more work, no phone and no bright lights. If stress is the issue, and your mind won’t stop racing, put a piece of paper and a pencil by your bed. Before you get into bed, spend 10 minutes writing down what’s on your mind. If those thoughts pop up, tell yourself they’re on the page, and let them go.
Your sleep environment? Think luxury cave. Dark, quiet and cool – about 18C. (I’ve never seen a cave with a TV...) A drop in body temperature is a cue for sleep. A recent study found that taking a warm bath 1-2 hours before bed aided restful sleep - not only does warm water help your muscles to relax, the cooling that takes place as you exit the bath could help to induce a restful slumber.