Sleep...it's not just for babies (but they are good at it).
Generally speaking, over time, we sleep less and less. An infant is basically a warm, unconscious, messy, paper weight that sleeps somewhere between 16 hours to...well, all the time. A bit later on, children conk out for a solid 10-12 hours. A wee smidge down the developmental path, adolescents are hovering around 10 or so hours. Through emerging adulthood and into senescence, this pattern of ever dwindling shut eye continues, with most adults hovering around 6-8 hours a night and our elders having even less. There is a reason that you see so many older folks at the coffee shop at four in the morning. Basically, it's a golden years happy hour. If you haven't seen that yet, don't worry. It will come.
In between being a baby and your elder years, you will undergo many changes in not only sleep duration, but also the pattern in which sleep unfolds. Infants (and by proxy, their caregivers) experience a high degree of irregularity in sleep onset and duration. Over time, this usually becomes increasingly more organized and consolidated into the evening. How we negotiate these changes can determine much about our overall health and wellness. In considering how best to work with sleep, there are two areas that might offer some disproportionate gains for relatively modest inputs of energy: understanding your chronotype and exploring a bit about sleep hygiene.
Early bird. Night Owl. Sloth Time. There are many animal-themed descriptive phrases around sleep. In psychological literature, this is often described as a continuum of morningness and eveningness, which refers to your natural peak of energy during your typical 24 hour trip around the sun. Dr. Michael Breus boils this down further into 4 main chronotypes, each corresponding with a different sleep/wake style (FMI - check out his book The Power of When). This work has been synthesized in various handy articles online: Bulletproof.com; Health.com; & Bustle.com.
If you have 10 minutes, here is a quick video overview:
Essentially, chronotypes suggest that there could be some serious discrepancies between how your day to day life flows and when you are likely to be most present/available for that life. If you have a good match, hooray! But if you find yourself struggling with your energy, this may be one area to explore further. In addition to having a sense of your chronotype, having some strategies to help with sleep generally can be super handy.
At some point, you have fallen asleep. It could be happening right now (if you are driving, pull over...and stop reading this...). Good work. In my practice I often like to review some areas around your sleep pattern that might be helpful to improving your rest. Usually these are low hanging fruit that don't require too much effort to implement. Here are a couple of my favorites.
Be Consistent. Try to find a pattern that works for you that sends you off to dreamland and wakes you up around the same time each day. Where possible, try not to deviate from this usual bedtime/waketime by more than an hour. Don't beat yourself up if you have something called "a life" and it keeps you from being on your schedule. Just adjust and try to get back to your routine as you are able.
Mind the Light! We are wired to respond to sunlight. Here in the northern latitudes, our days lengthen and contract throughout the year. In summer months, try to block out sunlight from your sleeping area. Year round, spend the hour before bed in a low light setting, this cues your body to relax and start approaching sleep. In the winter, jump start your day with some good natural light exposure or get a lamp that mimics natural light (often prescribed for individuals with Seasonal Affective Disorder). Screen time can actually stimulate your brain to think that it is daytime and it needs to stay awake - this is why you see a lot of recommendations to limit screens in the bedroom, especially at night.
Careful How You Train. Lying awake in bed with thoughts racing by on hyperspeed? Rolling around and looking at the clock over and over? Get up, go sit in a comfy chair, and do the crossword. Or puzzle. Or write down a list of the things you need to do. Do something that doesn't involve a screen, can be done in low light, and is not in your bed. When you start to feel sleepy again, then go back to bed. I like to share with clients that your bed is for sleeping and sex (not necessarily in that order). If you are trying to tough it out in bed and will yourself to sleep, you are essentially training yourself to be awake and frustrated in bed. Try to train yourself to be relaxed and sleepy in bed if you can.
Cool It. Sleep is temperature dependent. Keeping your room cool via an air conditioner, leaving a window open, or running a fan can help you drift off. Don't do your hill sprints in your furry costume 20 minutes before bed and expect to go to sleep. Keeping your room somewhere in the 60s for a temperature should help you hit the zone. Some folks prefer it to be very frosty and others like it closer to 70.
Smooth Jazz. Ok, maybe not. However, playing some mellow music can help kickstart your relaxation response. Running a fan at night is not only helpful with temperature, but it also provides white noise (they also make inexpensive machines that mimic fan noise, or the sound of the ocean, or various night sounds). If you make relaxing music and/or white noise a regular part of your bedtime routine, you are essentially adding another element to your sleep training. Eventually, your body associates these sounds with sleep, helping you settle into a relaxed state more quickly.
You can even find full length concerts designed to facilitate a healthy sleep cycle:
There are even more tips and info here.
Ultimately, good sleep hygiene is a cornerstone to building a solid mental health and wellness routine - combined with a working understanding of your chronotype you can really start to fine tune your approach to sleep, hopefully with the result of feeling sharper and more rested!