11 Soothing Pre-Sleep Habits for a Restful Night and Productive Next Morning
It’s all about calming down your brain and your body.
If you know you need more sleep—or better sleep—and aren’t quite sure how to make it happen, it’s time to talk about pre-sleep habits that might help. Busy schedules and busy brains cut into precious sleep time, whether it’s a conscious decision or not, which is why so many of us have had to sit down and make a plan for how we’re going to get more sleep. A lot of it comes down to pre-sleep habits we can incorporate at night for high-quality rest (and a productive morning the next day as a great bonus).
“Variability is the enemy of sleep,” Ravi S. Aysola, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at UCLA, tells SELF. Having a routine based on good sleep hygiene—a set of best practices to promote good sleep—can help you teach your body and brain to recognize when it’s time to conk out.
Sleep is driven in part by biological changes, says Cathy Anne Goldstein, M.D., clinical associate professor of sleep medicine at University of Michigan Medicine. Those include mechanisms like your level of the sleep-related hormone melatonin increasing as daylight goes down and your core body temperature lowering as you prepare for sleep. But sleep is also driven by the behaviors that condition us to get sleepy or stay alert. “Humans are very conditioned individuals,” Dr. Goldstein tells SELF. “If we set a bedtime routine, that’s going to help us from that conditioning standpoint.”
One of the biggest problems people have is shutting off their attention at bedtime, Dr. Aysola says. “Our brains are constantly going, and we’re not like a light switch; you need some time to decompress to allow sleep to happen.” That means finding activities or rituals that help you feel calm and relaxed and making them a part of your nighttime routine. To help you out, below are some good nighttime, pre-sleep habits that may help you fall asleep faster and get a solid night of quality rest.
1. Give meditation a try if you haven’t already.
Okay, yes, you may have heard this tip quite a few times already. But meditation is by far the tactic most people we spoke to credited with helping them fall asleep more quickly and sleep better, so it deserves the top spot on this list. Abbey T., 31, often listens to a guided meditation on the Headspace app in bed. “I notice a difference in being able to fall asleep quickly, but I also stay asleep better when I follow my routine,” she tells SELF.
Dr. Goldstein recommends practicing meditation daily and using it as part of your wind-down routine to help relax and calm your mind. You can also use it as a tool if you wake up in the middle of the night and need to fall back asleep. Using a guided meditation app to help is great, but practicing enough to be able to do it on your own is also a really good idea if you think you might need it in a pinch at 3 a.m. ADVERTISEMENT
The thing about meditation is that you might know it could be great for you but not be sure of exactly how to get started and stick with it for maximum benefits. Here are some resources that can help:
- How to Meditate When You Have No Idea Where to Start
- A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation
- 15 Meditation Apps to Get Your 2021 Off to a Peaceful Start
- There’s Never Been a Better Time to Try Guided Meditation
2. Write down to-dos and other thoughts that might keep you up at night.
Ever go to bed super tired and ready to pass out, only to suddenly think of every single outstanding item on your to-do list the moment your head hits the pillow? Dr. Goldstein says it’s common for people with insomnia to find their minds racing, thinking about everything from how to solve a problem at work to their hopes and dreams for the future. Both negative and positive musings can keep our minds overactive and prevent us from dozing off.
To help, Dr. Goldstein recommends keeping a journal next to your bed and jotting these thoughts down when they pop into your head. Margo K., 31, says she makes it a habit of doing this, whether it’s a “to-do” or simply a reflection on something that happened during the day. Simply getting it out of her head makes a huge difference.
3. Listen to a bedtime story (for adults).
“Sleep story podcasts are the best!” says Michelle P., 29. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Apps like Headspace, Calm, Slumber, and Sleepiest have actual bedtime stories you can listen to. Michelle listens to them in her Musicozy (Amazon, $20), which is a sleep eye mask with Bluetooth headphones built in. “My go-to bedtime ritual is climbing into bed and turning on a sleep story podcast. They stop your mind from racing by grounding you in a specific place or time, whether that’s a cozy lake house or a dreamy trip to Norway. My favorite show is ‘Nothing Much Happens: Bedtime Stories for Grownups.’”
4. Don’t eat dinner too late, especially if you’re prone to heartburn.
Another potential cause of sleep disruption is acid reflux, Dr. Aysola says. Acid reflux happens when stomach acid flows into your esophagus, and it can cause symptoms like heartburn and chest pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Not exactly ideal for good quality sleep!
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If you think you might be dealing with this, Dr. Aysola recommends avoiding going to sleep with a full belly: “End your last meal a couple hours before bedtime so you have less of a chance of reflux interfering with your sleep.” Even if you don’t have acid reflux, eating can also cause indigestion and upset stomach, depending on what you eat, how much, and how quickly. That’s definitely not something you want to be dealing with when you’re trying to sleep, so try to finish eating a full meal two to three hours before bedtime.
5. Ditch electronics two hours before bed.
“Light exposure, particularly LED light from backlit electronic screens, within four hours prior to natural sleep onset can move your [internal] clock later and make it harder to fall asleep and wake up,” Dr. Goldstein says. Cutting yourself off four hours before bed is really hard, she acknowledges, so aim for two hours if you can. “I really recommend large, close-range backlit LED screens like tablets, laptops, and computers, have a hard stop within two hours before bed,” Dr. Goldstein says. Even if you do less than that, you might find it helpful. In addition to meditating, she also avoids screens 30 minutes before bed.
Since the TV isn’t at such close range, sleep experts believe it isn’t as detrimental, she adds. That doesn’t mean you should watch TV in bed, though. “You want to associate bed with sleep, and not TV watching,” Dr. Goldstein says, “but from a light standpoint, it doesn’t seem as bad.” With that said, there’s a chance falling asleep with the TV on could still affect your sleep—you can read all about that here.
6. Dim the lights as it gets dark out.
While it might not be realistic to avoid your tablet or computer a full four hours before bed, one thing that’s easy to do and that can help prep your body for bed is to reduce overhead lighting. “If it’s dark or dim outside, you want to think about making it dim inside your home,” Dr. Goldstein says. After dinner, start dimming the lights in your house. You can also reduce overhead light by opting for table lamps instead. This will help reduce the overall amount of light you’re exposed to at night, making it easier for your body to recognize it’s dark out and that bedtime is near.
7. Take a warm bath.
“I take a steaming hot shower, sometimes bath, before bed every night,” Annie D., 36, tells SELF. “It’s my signal to myself that the day is done and it’s time to get cozy and get into bed when I’m done.”
Not only is a warm bath or shower relaxing, but it also helps you biologically prepare for sleep, Dr. Goldstein says. As we near bedtime, our body temperature naturally starts to drop, as we mentioned. If the temperature in the room is too hot, but our bodies want to cool down, it can interfere with this natural process. Taking a warm bath or shower will help facilitate that body temperature drop, Dr. Goldstein says. “A warm bath one or two hours before bed helps you dissipate heat through the skin. The temperature gradient causes heat loss through the core, so the core temperature is ultimately cooled down.” Just make sure you leave an hour, ideally two, between bath time and bedtime: If you go straight from a hot tub into bed before your body has a chance to dissipate the heat, your core temperature will be too high and uncomfortable for sleep.
8. Try a white noise machine.
“I swear by my Rohm white noise machine,” Jaime B., 42, tells SELF. “I originally bought it for one of my babies but kept it for myself because it’s the best to help me tune out all the noise in my head at night and actually fall asleep. I’m obsessed.” When she forgets to turn it on, she finds herself staring at the ceiling or tossing and turning. “And then I realize that I don’t have my white noise machine on, and as soon as I turn it on, I kid you not, it’s my cue to start relaxing and zoning out,” Jaime says. Here’s a guide to buying a white noise machine if you don’t know where to start.
For what it’s worth, a fan can also help provide some soothing white noise, and has the bonus of keeping the room cool, Dr. Goldstein says.
9. Read an actual paper book.
“Reading a book helps calm my mind,” Sarah S., 30, tells SELF. She tries to read for at least 10 minutes in bed before falling asleep. “These few minutes quiet the thoughts about the leftovers on my to-do lists and make falling asleep that much quicker—sometimes I can’t even get through two pages,” Sarah says. She also reads in the morning before jumping into work. This reading routine is a way for her to take ownership of her day. “I’m a more patient, flexible, and confident leader when I own my mornings and evenings with reading,” Sarah says. “I decide that my day starts and ends my way, so it gives me the ability to serve others more fully.”
10. Set your alarm for the same time every single night.
Even if you don’t set your alarm for the next day right before bed, Dr. Goldstein says this is probably the most important habit of all if you want to fall asleep faster at night. “Sleep truly starts in the morning,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Getting up at the same time every day and getting light first thing is what’s going to align the body clock to a 24-hour day. Having a stable wake time makes your ‘fall asleep time’ more stable too. Consistency is key.”
“Catching up on sleep” isn’t really a thing, so if you can resist the temptation to sleep in on the weekends, and keep your wake time consistent, you’ll be thanking yourself when you fall asleep easily at night.
11. Make your wind-down routine as consistent as possible.
If you want to make real changes to your sleep routine, including with your pre-sleep habits, it’s important to start small. Begin by picking just a couple of the ideas above and getting consistent with those before further tweaking your routine.
Your pre-sleep habit routine can be as complex or simple as you need. For some people, like Margo K., 31, that means sipping a hot mug of chamomile tea and doing a sleep meditation in bed. For others, like Michèlle F., 45, it means a combo of one or all of the below: meditating, taking a bath, using aromatherapy body oil, cutting off electronics and food two hours before bed, and listening to soothing, sleep-inducing music. Just be careful not to make your pre-sleep habit routine so complicated that it becomes a burden and no longer relaxing—that’s the exact opposite of what we’re going for here!
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Amy is a freelance writer who covers health, fitness, outdoors, and travel. She holds a B.A. in journalism from the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, a personal trainer certification from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), and a CPR certification from the American Red Cross.