If you've read my post on coping with sleep deprivation and the anxiety I developed as a new mother faced with an endless string of sleepless nights, this post about the reasons I go to bed early will come as no surprise.
If you've spent time with me at a social occasion in the last three years (and arguably possibly long before that) you may also not be surprised to read that I like to go to bed earlier than most. (Though there will be many people who will be surprised as these are the people who spent time with me in my teens and early twenties who have had to drag me off dance floors in nightclubs as the lights are going on and the bouncers are kicking everyone one.)
If I've ever spoken to you about my mental health and the things I do to look after it, you've possibly been expecting this post. Maybe I mentioned to you how I was going to write it and well, I finally am. My reasons for doing so are two-fold; firstly to highlight the simplicity but far-reaching effectiveness of going to bed early for your mental health, but also to secondly, offer up some advice (some obvious, some not so much) about how to actually go to bed earlier, and to develop good sleep habits. Because my number one line of attack when it comes to looking after my mental health is GOING TO BED EARLY, and by early I mean I'm normally in bed reading by 9.30pm and my lights are nearly always out (literally and metaphorically speaking!) by 10.15pm.
The reasons I go to bed early (and maybe you should too)
There are a million ironies associated to writing a post about good sleep health as I prepare for the birth of my second child. I feel like I'm facing a wall of bad sleep and it's inching ever closer to me as my belly expands. However, this is one of the very reasons I felt prompted to write this post and to remind myself as well you, dear reader, why this simple "trick" is one I need to protect and do whatever I can to keep when my second baby arrives.
I know full well that going to bed is a privilege in this world and don't think I write this post assuming everyone has it at their finger tips - I don't. However, I do feel those who can, often don't and I write this for them in case you were looking for a quick, cheap and easy way to bring a bit more energy and calm into your life. Here are the reasons I go to bed too, and maybe they are reasons you should too.
Sleep is important, so give yourself a fighting chance.
I don't want this post to become a list of the many benefits of enough sleep because that should be obvious and not really up for discussion, but I will just add my personal experience that sleep deprivation was absolutely a contributing factor to my post-natal depression and anxiety. The research backs this up with depression being more common in those who are overtired. Countless studies have found that sleep disruption leads to pessimistic thoughts but perhaps we don't need science to prove this point. I think we can all agree that being tired and not getting enough sleep - for whatever reason - sucks. Sleep is important. Full stop, so our goal should always be to try and get enough.
It's simple maths. The earlier you go to bed the more chance you have of getting all the sleep you need. If you're not going to bed until near midnight and your alarm for work is set for 6.30am you've already made it impossible for you to have eight full hours of sleep which is the average recommended amount for adults. Yes, everyone is different and some people need more or less sleep than this, but it's good practice to try and aim for the recommended amount, just as it's a good habit to try and eat the recommended amount of vegetables and fruit every day. (And of course, we don't always hit these targets every single day, but if we're not trying to then we never will.
My natural rhythm leaves me more tired in the evening (aka I'm a morning person)
I know not everybody is a morning person (and I take this into consideration in the tips for going to sleep earlier below) so if you know or sense you are more of a morning person than a night owl, then it's well worth prioritising going to bed earlier rather than later. Signs that you're a morning person don't really include jumping out of bed every morning and dancing around the kitchen while you wait for the kettle to boil for your tea/coffee, but they do include having more energy and focus in the morning hours (before midday), finding it harder to avoid distraction or procrastination in the afternoon, and of course, getting tired in the evening rather than feeling inspiration strike at this time.
I have a child who often likes to wake early
God love him, but my son has always played an excellent game of "Guess what time I'm going to wake up?" every single morning since birth. Regardless of what time he goes to bed, what the weather is, what time the sun comes up and what noise is happening around him (or not) we are at the mercy of our two-year-old when it comes to what time our day starts. Sometimes it's as early as 5-something (shudder) and other times I see the number 7 when I open my eyes for the first time (and then I definitely do a dance around the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil) but most of the time it's around 6:30 give or take 20-30 minutes here or there. Call me over-cautious but I go to bed early so I can be prepared for the earlier mornings rather than taking a gamble on a lie-in - that's a bet I nearly never win.
An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after (kinda)
My dad always used to say that an hour's sleep before midnight is worth more than those you get after. I was young and naive enough at the time to just believe him without question, but I did do some research into this for this post because it's a message that's stuck with me and I actually sort of believe it from personal experience. One article refers to you naturally having more of a certain kind of energy before midnight (because you've been awake less time) and if you go to sleep during this time your body will use this energy to do everything sleep does - repair and recharge your body and brain. Another article simply referred to "researchers" finding an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after but it doesn't back it up with sources. Another more comprehensive article refers to the time you go to bed being incremental in the quality of sleep you have (because of sleep cycles etc) but that this doesn't necessary mean that all sleep before midnight is worth more though on the same premise it can.
Personally, I know from the time when my son was little and sleeping terribly (waking 1-2 hours every night for several months) that if I can squeeze in two or three hours of uninterrupted sleep before midnight, I can handle the wake-ups in the early hours and the struggle of the next day much better than if I'm woken during that time.
The things I do in the evening when not sleeping are not very productive things
Again in line with my being a morning person, the very rare times I stay up late now are invariably spent absorbed in a Netflix series that really could wait, or I'm messing about on the internet or scrolling on my phone. I hardly ever let work get too much for me that I have to work evenings (and if that was the case I'd be more likely to go to bed early and set an alarm to get up the following morning to finish it) so it's fair to say that because my focus and concentration is so lacking in the early hours of night, I'm much better off spending them sleeping than anything else!
It is much needed me-time
Many will find it sad that five nights out of seven (or thereabouts) I go to bed earlier than my partner, and I used to find it a little disconcerting or worrying - what did it say about our relationship? - now we see it as a vital part of our partnership. He gets to watch an hour of TV I probably wouldn't enjoy and I get to go to bed in peace and quiet, often reading for half an hour before turning out the light. After a busy day of work and time with my son - and all the daily domestic chores that life brings - this is much needed, much appreciated me-time, sometimes the only me-time I get in a day as an extroverted introvert (that's a thing, right?) I really benefit from that time.
I have a routine that encourages it, and includes some of my favourite things
When we were sleep training our son we learned all about sleep associations and routines to help a baby go to sleep. The same is true for adults. I now go through the same motions every evening to help get me ready for bed. It's very possible you do the same thing without even realising it. All of these things you do, in roughly the same order, at roughly the same time of day, are sending messages to your brain that sleep is a-coming so your body starts getting ready for it (hello, melatonin!). This is really helpful at training yourself to sleep a little earlier if you would like to. Personally, I've developed a sleep routine that includes some of my favourite things. No, not cleaning my teeth and flossing, but sometimes taking a bath, always moisturising (I seriously consider this a luxury now I'm a parent!), and reading. Honestly, going to bed for me is like a little spa visit...
I struggle to sleep when overtired.
Yes, really. No, it doesn't make sense to me either, but I've learned the hard way that leaving it too late to go to bed can actually backfire completely so I just try to avoid missing my "sleepy" period between 9.30 and 10.30pm.
I actually have a mini version of PTSD about not getting enough sleep
Boom. I left this little nutshell to nearly the end of reasons I go to bed early, and it's actually more likely that it's the number one reason I go to bed early, but part of my hopeful approach to minimising the effects of potential anxiety is I'm trying not to overindulge this thought-process. Yes, I have a lot of anxiety attached to not getting enough sleep, and yes, healthy sleep habits are part of the way I cope with this or try to prevent it, but no, it's not the only reason I go to bed early, and in many ways it's possibly not a good reason to go to bed early as I'm effectively feeding the potential for panic attacks and anxiety should I NOT go to bed early.
Going to bed is my reward for a long day. I want to savour it.
I think everyone reading this will know what it feels like getting into bed after a long, hard day... especially if there are clean sheets on your bed and clean pyjamas on your bed. What bliss that is! Well, I want to savour that moment. That moment is my reward for getting through a day that was busy and productive at best, or possibly stressful and chaotic at worst. If I go to bed later, I'm already counting the hours of sleep I'm not going to get and this is feeding my mini-PTSD and so I'm not in a calm and relaxed frame of mind in which to really enjoy that moment of getting into bed and exhaling... AHHHHHHH!
How to go to bed earlier (and actually sleep)
I'm the first to admit that I have a natural advantage for going to bed early and actually sleeping because I've always preferred an early night and early morning over a late night and late morning - I'm annoyingly rubbish at sleeping in - but I do believe that even long-term night owls can adjust their natural rhythm so they can go to bed a little earlier. Even if it's just one hour earlier than your usual bedtime you could reap a lot of the benefits listed above. Here are my tips and suggestions for giving yourself a chance at going to sleep earlier.
Be protective of your sleep
Too many people seem to take sleep for granted. I did until my darling, beautiful, much-loved son robbed me of so much of it. The only way for me to ensure I got enough sleep back then was to be incredibly precious and protective of my sleep. Yes, I was doing this for survival purposes but it's an attitude that has stuck around. I get so riled when I hear people say "sleep when you're dead" or something similar because not getting enough sleep can literally mean you will be dead. That's what countless studies show and that's what I actually felt like when I was seriously sleep deprived. I never want to feel that way again and so I am quick to be protective about my sleep. I am often the butt of jokes and all too often I find myself having to justify why I'm leaving a social occasion a little earlier than others, but I can cope with this. I am less able to cope with feeling tired for too long, as I know it directly contributes to poor mental health and anxiety for me. I'm also not much fun to be around when I'm not getting enough sleep. So despite what people say or think I know I'm not being pedantic by going to bed when I'm tired and ready; I'm being a mindful, good person (to myself and those around me) and I'm definitely being a good mother.
Don't go cold turkey...
If you're usual bedtime is around midnight or later, it would be silly for you to start going to bed at 10pm and expect that to be a success. Your natural rhythm has adapted to your late night antics so you will now need to change it again. Start just chopping off 15 minutes or so and gradually bring your bedtime a little earlier every night. I suspect (but don't know for sure because I'm no sleep expert or scientist) that if you actually follow a lot of the below recommendations (reducing screen time, creating calming bedtime rituals etc) you may find yourself feeling drowsy earlier - or you are simply removing the stimuli that keeps you awake - and so listen to your body and you may be able to make that bedtime earlier quicker than you think.
Reduce screen time
Most of you will know that screen time before going to bed is baaaaaad. It reduces the body's natural release of melatonin (the hormone that makes you feel drowsy and ready to go to sleep), it wakes up neurons on your body so you're more alert, albeit artificially, and depending on what you're doing it can also cause stress or tension in your body. I switch my phone onto Airplane mode from about 9pm and I have a screen filter to reduce my phone's brightness which I also activate then. I've been trying to read more physical books since going to bed earlier, but to be honest it's very practical still to read a book on the Kindle app on my phone so I still do that a lot, especially when I wake up in the night and need it to help me drop back off again.. I'm just very disciplined with keeping that phone offline until the morning and it's worked. Now I don't even think about turning it back on until the morning and I've had enough sleep.
Dim the lights and noises
I recently spoke to my therapist about how much more sensitive to light and sound I had become since having anxiety. This is all completely normal, she told me, and reflects my brain doing what it's supposed to - i.e. fighting off any possible thing that will keep me from sleeping. While my brain is perhaps being a little over cautious in this instance (and this is definitely related to the mini PTSD I'm experiencing) I do think it's logical that if you want to go to bed earlier you should ease yourself into a dark, quiet environment. Not many people can go from flashing lights and full volume dance music to sleeping instantly (unless you're very drunk or very lucky!). Now after I put my son to bed and I put my laptop away for the day, I also dim the lights in our living room and I sit a decent distance away from our TV. I'm also really (and annoyingly) quick at asking my partner to turn down the volume of the TV show or film we're watching and we generally only watch things that are easy-going before going to bed.
Forget horror movies
No matter how much you love being scared half to death by a movie, may I recommend skipping it when you're trying to encourage yourself to go to sleep earlier. Instead watch things that are soothing or calming (or just really boring!) or best of all, read a book... No, not a horror story, but again something that will help you switch off.
Have a bath
This is a surefire way to make me feel sleepy. All that hot water. All that steam. Maybe a couple of pages of my book (which you shouldn't do when already tired because it could get wet, or your Kindle could meet a nasty end). All these things are so relaxing to me and the last thing I want to do after a good soak is anything active or too challenging, so if this sounds familiar definitely try having a hot bath before bed to encourage an earlier bedtime. A hot shower can also have the same effect for me, but maybe not for everyone.
Eat well throughout the day
Again I'm stating the hugely obvious but eating a family bag of Haribo before you go to bed isn't going to be conducive to good sleep. Sugar, caffeine and other stimulants like tobacco and alcohol have all been found to hinder sleep or lead to poor sleep so do yourself a favour and cut them out of your diet by a certain point. Personally, I try to have my last cup of tea by 4pm and I never drink coffee after lunch unless I've had a truly terrible night's sleep the night before. As much as I love sweet treats I also limit my intake or try to avoid them completely after 5pm, and even when I can drink (I'm currently pregnant) unless it's a special (and rare occasion!) that I'm out with friends or my partner, I try not to drink more than one or one and a bit glasses of wine! I know this all sounds like I'm trying to be the Fun Police and take away all your vices but this is really just common sense if you really want to sleep more or better. If you eat half a tub of ice cream half an hour before you want to go to bed, you are not going to feel very tired anytime soon (believe me I've tried).
There's also a lot of truth in eating well during the whole day so that you have enough energy when you need it and you will sleep well at night too. Personally, I need to eat some carbs with my final meal of the day or I can wake up in the night feeling hungry (and that never helps me go back to sleep) but I try to finish eating them before 6.30pm (which we can easily do because we have a two-year-old!). I have also fairly recently swapped my lunchtime sandwich for something with more veggies, protein and whole grains in because I've found that helps me avoid the afternoon dip that leads me sniffing out caffeine and/or sugar, but you should experiment with what works for you so you can have the right kind of energy when you need it.
Create gentle soothing bedtime rituals
As I mentioned above routine is key for creating sleep associations and sending the message to your brain that you want to sleep. I also refer to how many of the things I do to get ready for bed are things I enjoy and find relaxing. Create a bedtime routine that is full of your own selection of these things. They can be really small things - taking your make-up off, brushing your hair, playing a favourite song, doing some yoga stretches (slow and gentle ones please!), maybe a little meditation, or spraying your pillow with a sleep spray (I love this one) - but doing them in the same order, every evening before you then get into bed will help your brain and body know what you're preparing to do. I personally start by switching my phone to airplane mode, then I go into the bathroom and brush my teeth, floss, take any make-up off and wash my face, apply a night moisturiser, change into my PJs (though I'll be honest most of the time I'm already in them by 5pm) and then get into bed. There I put my phone to charge, squirt a bit of my sleep spray on my pillow, put some hand cream on, pop my ear plugs in and start reading. That's it.
Open a window or invest in a fan
Did you know our bodies prefer to be cool at night? This doesn't make complete sense to me when being warm makes me feel drowsy, but it's true. I know I am also more likely to wake up through the night if it's warm and there's no fresh air circulating. We have this fan at the end of our bed which is fairly quiet (but definitely not silent!) and while it was quite pricey we see it as an investment and have had two summers' worth of good sleep as a result. (We sleep on the fourth floor so heat rises and summer months get feel really stifling in our bedroom!)
Have a caffeine curfew
I mentioned it above but I think it's worth repeating, and let me say it in simpler language: drinking coffee or black tea (or even eating chocolate - sorry!) just before you go to bed is not going to help you go to sleep earlier. Pyschology Today suggest a 2pm caffeine curfew to ensure it's all left your body before sleeping but like I mention above I have found I'm still tired and ready to sleep by 10pm (or earlier) if I have a caffeine curfew of 4pm.
Don't exercise too late at night
This is an interesting one, and I suspect it's different for everyone but I have found if I do an evening exercise session or go for a run later than 7pm, I actually struggle to go to sleep around my usual 9.30/10pm bedtime. I suspect it's something to do with the release of adrenaline and other wakey-wakey hormones (not an official medical term!) but I definitely feel more tired in the evenings when I do my exercise earlier in the day (and of course I get more out of the exercise itself).
The one exception I am quick to add here is yin yoga. I can do an evening session of yin yoga and pretty much go to sleep immediately after. In fact, my main problem is staying awake during the whole session itself...
Try lavender, chamomile and melatonin
When I was struggling to sleep due to anxiety I took melatonin herbal sleeping tablets to help me feel drowsy at night (and switch off my noisy brain) and I often have a cup of chamomile tea before I go to bed. I also used to have a little pouch of dried lavender on my bedside table that I would sniff just before going to bed, but now I use a sleep spray that contains lavender. There are other herbal remedies to help you sleep so do some research and try a few to see if any of them work for you.
So listen, if all the above fails, why not try to be cruel to be kind? If you can't reset your body clock at night time why not try to reset it in the morning. Just be brave and set your alarm for an hour or so earlier than you would normally wake up (regardless of what time you go to bed the night before) and then get up, and attack your day with as much gusto as you can muster. Stick to a caffeine curfew and just see how tired you are by early evening. Then, follow your body and go to bed when it feels close to ready (as long as it's not too early!). I'm not saying this will reset your body clock instantly but it's somewhat logical if you're up and burning energy and doing things earlier than usual, there's a good chance you'll feel tired earlier... Give it a go, if you're feeling brave!
So I think that's all the tips I have for trying to get to sleep earlier. I hope it was helpful or at least provided some food for thought. If you are also an early bedgoer please do share your own reasons for why you like to sleep early, and if you have any more tips or advice for those wanting to get to sleep a little earlier, please do share!
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Frances M. Thompson
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