BY JULIA MALACOFF
By now most of us know sleep is an essential part of any well-rounded health routine. For many people, improving their sleep means making changes to their sleep schedule, often to help them get more sleep. But shifting your sleep schedule in either direction — earlier or later — can be really tricky.
“I think the biggest challenge is that people may not know the best way to do it,” says Annie Miller, LCSW, who specializes in therapy for insomnia. “In fact, some of the strategies we might think are helpful could make sleep worse.” That’s why we asked sleep experts to explain exactly how to change your sleep schedule successfully, step by step.
KEEP YOUR WAKE-UP TIME CONSISTENT
Most people focus on what time they go to bed when they’re trying to shift their sleep schedule. But what happens to many people is that they try to go to bed early and end up spending a few hours in bed without being able to fall asleep. That’s why the first step in this process should be to start waking up at the same time every day, Miller says. “You may be tired in the short term, but this builds up sleep drive and eventually allows you to fall asleep faster at night,” she explains.
CONSIDER YOUR CHRONOTYPE
People often assume it’s better to get to bed and wake up earlier. While research shows early risers tend to experience better health outcomes, it’s also acknowledged that people have different chronotypes or “body clocks.” Some people thrive on early bedtimes and morning wake ups, while others would be better suited to a later bedtime and later wake up. Chronotypes can also vary with age. For example, teenagers tend to biologically prefer later bedtimes and wake ups, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine has even recommended starting middle and high school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow ample time for students to get enough sleep. Similarly, older adults tend to biologically prefer an earlier wake-up time.
All of this is to say, don’t force a new sleep schedule on yourself just because it seems like the “best” schedule or because you heard it’s better to get up early. What works best for you depends on your individual situation, and people sometimes end up frustrated when they don’t take this into account.
DON’T EXERCISE BEFORE BEDTIME
“Exercising is a great way to wear your body and mind out in a healthy way and helps prime your body for sleep,” explains Katherine Hall, a sleep coach at Somnus. But because exercise increases your core body temperature, increases your heart rate and stimulates your nervous system, it’s generally recommended to avoid workouts right before bed. This is especially important if you’re hoping to feel tired earlier so you can shift your sleep schedule. Aim to finish your workout around 2 hours before your new intended bedtime, Hall advises.
Another place where people tend to go wrong when changing their sleep schedule is that they try to make big changes over a short time period, according to Dr. Abhinav Singh, medical director of the Indiana Sleep Center and medical advisor to the Sleep Foundation.
“A gradual shift is the best way to go here,” Hall agrees. If you currently wake up at 9 a.m. but want to wake up at 6:30 a.m., don’t make that transition right off the bat. Start by shifting in 15-minute increments, Hall recommends. You could try increasing the shift on a daily or weekly schedule, depending on what works best for you.
TRY THIS WIND-DOWN ROUTINE
Particularly if you’re hoping to naturally adjust to an earlier bedtime, getting in the right frame of mind before heading to bed is important. Singh recommends a specific series of practices to wind down and prepare your body and mind for sleep:
“All of these practices help the mind stay anchored and allow sleep to come to you,” Dr. Singh says.
AVOID HANGING OUT IN BED
If you can’t fall asleep at your new desired bedtime, don’t keep trying to go to sleep, Miller advises. When you spend time awake in bed, your body and brain “learn” it’s a place for being awake. The opposite is true if you only spend time in bed when you’re sleeping. This strategy might result in less sleep in the beginning, but that’s OK, Miller emphasizes. As long as you keep your wake-up time consistent, you should find yourself getting tired at the appropriate time, making it easier to stick to your new bedtime.
INCLUDE YOUR SLEEP PARTNER
Changing your sleep schedule can also be tricky if you’re not the only person sleeping in your bedroom. If you can, get the rest of your household in on your sleep schedule changes, Singh recommends. If that’s not possible, there are some other strategies you can try.
“When you have a bed partner that has a different schedule than you, it can help to have a white noise machine, earplugs or other ways to mitigate sounds,” Miller says. “Also, it may be worth considering sleeping in a different room than your partner. This can work really well, even though many couples don’t like to consider this option. People tend to feel that this isn’t good for a relationship, but in fact, it can make relationships stronger.” After all, most of us are more agreeable when we’re getting good sleep.