It’s Sleep Week at Well+Good, which means we’re investigating what’s keeping everyone up at night, how fatigue is impacting our lives, and how we can clock some better shut-eye once and for all. Here, sleep expert and author of the forthcoming book The Woman’s Guide to Getting Over Insomnia, Shelby Harris, PsyD, shares her nighttime routine and how she puts all her intel into practice.
I have an 8-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, so the first part of my evening is all about them. I work from home on Mondays and Fridays, while on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I get home around 5:30 p.m. My husband has a demanding work schedule, so sometimes he’ll get home around 6:30, while other nights he doesn’t getting home until after 11 p.m.
Early in the night, I help my son with his homework, play with my daughter, and make dinner. We eat around 6 p.m., and then I’ll do the dishes and spend time playing with the kids. If my husband is home, he’ll help out, too. Sometimes I don’t finish the dishes, but I don’t stress about it. As a sleep doctor, one thing I’ve learned is that having enough time to relax in the evening is more important than finishing chores. Sleep is not an on-off switch.
As a sleep doctor, one thing I’ve learned is that having enough time to relax in the evening is more important than finishing chores. —Shelby Harris, PsyD
I have a strict bedtime schedule for both of my kids, which I think is extremely important. They’re really good sleepers, and I think it’s because we have a consistent routine down. My daughter goes to bed between 7:15 and 7:30 p.m., so at 7, I help her shower, brush her teeth, read her a story, and get her to bed. My son goes to bed at 8 p.m., so he has an hour to relax, which we often do together. I also help him get his backpack ready for school the next day. Around 7:45 p.m., he gets his shower, brushes his teeth, and reads himself a story.
After 8 p.m., I have my free time. I watch TV for 30 minutes or an hour, wearing these cute little red-tinted glasses to block the blue UV lights, which can negatively affect sleep.
Around 8:30 or 9 p.m., I put my PJs on and wash my face. Then, I like to do a five-minute meditation or breathing exercise, sitting on the edge of my bed, just focusing on my breath.
I love to have a cup of tea in the evening. My favorite right now is a non-caffeinated glazed lemon loaf flavor from Tazo. I have a big sweet tooth, so this gives me a way to satisfy that without having sugar. But I only brew myself half a cup because if I have too much tea at night, then I’ll wake up later having to pee.
Usually, I like to read or listen to an audiobook while I have my tea. I’ll check my email and texts one last time for the night at 9 p.m., then I put my phone on Airplane mode, turn on the Do Not Disturb feature (I set it up so family members can get through in case of an emergency), and really don’t look at my phone again at night. I don’t even use it as my alarm clock. My husband and I both use the same alarm clocks we had in high school and wake up to the radio, old-school style.
I turn off the lights and go to sleep between 9:30 and 10 p.m. I’m a marathon runner, so I wake up at 5:30 a.m. to either train or go to CrossFit, which I do twice a week. So because I prioritize exercising in the morning, I go to bed early every night.
If you can’t sleep, the worst thing you can do is stay in bed, just tossing and turning.
Still, being a sleep doctor doesn’t mean I never have problems sleeping: The other night, I went out with friends and ordered a cup of decaf after dinner. Well, it definitely wasn’t decaf, and when I got home, I was wired. Instead of lying in bed frustrated and anxious, I got up and did some light cleaning and read. If you can’t sleep, the worst thing you can do is stay in bed, just tossing and turning. I got up at my usual 5:30 a.m. time the next day, too, because I know sleeping in can disrupt future sleep. And you know what? I slept great the next night. Abiding by certain rules helps me stay accountable for prioritizing my sleep health.
To preserve my sleep health, I avoid the following 3 things.
1. Drinking caffeine or alcohol at night
I try not to drink alcohol at all during the week, but if I go out over the weekend and have a drink, I try to do it at least three hours before I go to bed. Alcohol can compromise sleep quality (and I find this to be especially true for me). Caffeine can similarly affect sleep quality (it triggers cortisol, which keeps you going). I do drink caffeine, but mostly in the morning, and definitely not after work or at night.
2. Working out in the evening
This was something I used to do all the time—until I became a sleep doctor and learned how disruptive vigorous evening workouts are for sleep. Exercise is actually ideal four to six hours before bed, but obviously most people’s schedules don’t allow for that, including mine. Morning workouts don’t help or hurt sleep, but intense workouts within three hours of when you go to bed can worsen the quality. [Editor’s note: Research points to certain workouts not being disruptive to sleep quality as long as they’re complete an hour before bedtime.]
3. Using the weekend to catch up on sleep
Even on the weekends, I go to bed by 10 p.m. and wake up early. This doesn’t mean I never go out past 9 p.m.—sometimes I do that, but it’s the exception, not the rule. My friends think I’m crazy for sticking to this sleep schedule seven days a week, but I’m a good sleeper because I’m so consistent. That said, if your job doesn’t allow you to sleep consistently, it’s okay to sleep in a few extra hours to catch up, but doing that on a regular basis will actually hurt your sleep in the end.
Dr. Harris contributed a recipe to Well+Good’s forthcoming cookbook, and she also wrote a chapter on how to eat for sleep. Pre-order it here. Plus, here’s what nearly 1,500 Well+Good readers shared about their sleep habits in a survey.
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