Having a Rigid Bedtime Routine Isn't the Answer to Your Sleep Issues—Experts Explain Why
The secret lies in how you wake up.
2020 has been quite a year. Preparation for the presidential election paired with pandemonium from a global pandemic has led to some pretty stressful times. And with mounting stress often comes disrupted sleep. For this reason, people all over the world have been seeking new ways to boost their bedtime routines in an effort to make it through the year. From influencers sharing their top sleep tips to bedding brands launching new products to help make way for a better night’s sleep, it’s clear that rest and revitalization are on the brain.
All of this got us thinking: Does going to bed at the same time every night actually matter? To find out, we chatted with a few leading sleep experts for their top input on all things sleep. Ahead, discover the truth about rigid bedtimes, the benefits of consistent wake times, and how to promote your best night’s sleep as a whole.
The truth about rigid bedtimes
Ever since we were little, many of us had set bedtimes. The reasoning? Our parents said that going to bed at the same time each night would best prepare us for what the next day had in store. Because of this, many children have grown into adults who rigidly adhere to set bedtimes each and every night. But in a time where no amount of sleep seems to fully prepare us for the next development, we can’t help but wonder if there's actually any validity behind this.
According to a 2019 MIT study, professors found that the quality of sleep matters more than the quantity. “For example, those who got relatively consistent amounts of sleep each night did better than those who had greater variations from one night to the next, even if they ended up with the same average amount,” the article concluded.
Eric Nofzinger, M.D., world-renowned sleep expert and founder and chief medical officer of Ebb Therapeutics, Inc., agrees with this, noting that it’s not so much an exact bedtime as it is knowing how much time to spend in bed each night that is most important.
"For example, someone who has [difficulty] sleeping might think that the more time they spend in bed the more opportunities for sleep they will have. Paradoxically, what often works best is more the opposite," he says. "We are only able to get a certain number of hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Spending more time in bed than a person is able to get often leads to very fragmented, disrupted, tossing-and-turning kind of sleep with racing minds and excessive worry about not being able to sleep.” As such, if you’re someone who regularly is only able to sleep for seven hours a night, there’s no point in trying to force yourself into bed at a time that promises nine hours of sleep.
As a whole, Dr. Michael Grandner—who is the director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona, director of the behavioral sleep medicine clinic at Banner-University Medical Center, and an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine—says that it’s about reliability, not rigidity. “The human body loves reliable, predictable patterns,” he explains. “A regular sleep schedule helps keep all the rhythms of the body in order and helps the body better anticipate how it can best perform these functions.”
With this in mind, find out how long your body is able to sleep on average and then plan a flexible bedtime to ensure that number of hours each night. But remember, flexibility should only mean that your actual sleep time is within an hour or so of your goal time. After all, according to a May 2019 study published by The International Association for the Study of Pain, researchers found that chronic pain participants who went to bed at widely irregular times each night experienced more sleep disturbances, activity interference (i.e. distractedness) throughout the day, negative moods, and general worsening conditions over time.
The benefits of consistent wake times
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have wake times. According to experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it’s not just the total number of hours you sleep each night but the regular sleep schedule you adopt that leads to feeling more rested. And part of a regular sleep schedule isn’t just when you go to bed but when you wake up. In fact, according to Teni Davoudian, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Oregon Health and Science University’s Center for Women’s Health, your bedtime isn’t even what matters most. Rather, she found that it’s the time when you wake up consistently that makes the biggest difference in how well-rested you feel.
"When you first wake up, your body starts to build a sleep drive," Dr. Davoudian said in the article published by the Center. "The more sleep drive you build, the sleepier you get at the end of the day. If you wake up at the same time every day, then your sleep drive will build consistently. This helps get your body clock in sync, and over time, you'll start feeling sleepy at a reasonable time in the evenings."
Dr. Nofzinger attests to this, noting that the first step to good sleep health is a regular wake time. “Once this is established, then a person should subtract the number of hours they think they are actually sleeping, then go to bed at that time,” he says. “It may take some trial and error to figure out what is the best time to get up based on these calculations, but finding a consistent and regular schedule using the good morning time as the foundation is the key to success.” And speaking of success, he says that the trick isn’t to just adhere to the times during the week but on non-workdays, too, as this sets the stage for a routine.
How to create a better sleep cycle
Now that you know the importance of establishing a daily wake time and striving for a regular bedtime, let’s chat about how to make achieving those as simple as possible.
First things first: your sleep environment. According to sleep expert Tara Youngblood—who is the cofounder, chief scientist, and CEO of ChiliSleep, a company providing restorative sleep products—the temperature of your room plays a big role in how well you’ll be able to sleep. A 2019 article published in the Journal of Frontiers in Neuroscience confirms this, noting that cooler temperatures are connected with greater NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to turn down your thermostat or to keep a personal fan in your room at night, like a Dyson Pure Cool Link Purifier Fan. What’s more, you can try outfitting your bed with cool, breathable linens, like Brooklinen’s Classic Percale Sheets, which promise to “make your whole bed feel like the cool side of the pillow.”
Another part of cultivating the ultimate sleep environment is paying attention to how light affects your ability to fall asleep and wake up each night and day. At night, it’s advised to put down your phone and shut off your TV 30 to 45 minutes before bed so that exposure to blue light won’t keep you up. Additionally, you can fill your room with specialty lighting designed to promote sleep. Casper’s Glow Lights are designed to dim and brighten in a way that mimics sunset and sunrise, both of which help lead to better sleep and easier rising.
Lastly, an April 2020 article published by Harvard Medical School says that it’s important not to stay in bed all day (say, during a pandemic) and to avoid caffeine late in the day and copious amounts of alcohol at night.
At the end of the day, it’s important to give yourself enough time to rest. If on any given day something pops up that interferes with your ability to go to bed or wake up at your goal time, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, grant yourself at least seven hours of sleep to fully prepare for the next day. And remember: Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean that you need less sleep. According to the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging, aging adults still require between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. It’s a common misconception that they can get by with less.