Who would have thought that we'd have to go into "training" for a good night's sleep? But in the twenty-first century - when we are overwhelmed with electronics and subtle, incessant stressors - sleep is one of those necessities for which we have to go into training.
The cornerstone for getting consistent, restorative sleep is the bedtime ritual.
In the book The Power of Rest, Matthew Edlund, M.D. says this about the importance of having a sleep ritual:
"Because everything works better if much of your pre-sleep period becomes routine, rhythmic, and ritualized...If you have to describe it in a single word, a sleep ritual is conditioning. Without thinking you can peaceably and pleasantly go to sleep."
You already have a bedtime ritual. Make sure it works for you.
If you come home with takeout, eat it in front of Netflix, have a couple of glasses of wine, take a shower, and go into bed wearing your workout clothes while checking your social media...that's your bedtime ritual. And any sleep expert would tell you that it's not going to work for you.
Parents of kids can get hooked into similar bedtime ritual snags. If you're waiting in your child's room after tuck-in time, or even sleeping there, that's a bedtime ritual that won't serve your child...and certainly doesn't serve you.
Even just 15 minutes of intentional wind-down time following the guidelines below will set you up for a better night's sleep.
Bedtime rituals are part of bedtime boundaries.
Bedtime rituals and sleep are so critical to a happy, healthy, and well-balanced life, you've got to set some bedtime boundaries. This piece on Psych Central by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. gives a run-down on the importance of personal boundaries.
Successful bedtime rituals 10 steps
Step 1: Set a wake up time
I know it seems counter-intuitive, but in order to assess the most effective bedtime ritual you have to know when to go to bed. Wake-up times will vary according to age and what your day looks like. If you're parenting, there may be different wake-up times for each member of the family.
The National Sleep Foundation has an infographic of sleep requirements by age here .
Step 2: Set a "lights out" time
...and stick to it! This will be based on the information from the National Sleep Foundation.
Step 3: Your best bedtime ritual begins with the morning sun
Melatonin production is the secret to deep sleep. Its production can be inhibited, or encouraged. Exposing yourself to sunlight within 2 hours on awakening is "the cheapest and most widely available sleep aid" according to Dr. Robert Rosenberg of Answers for Sleep.
Step 5: Take a hot bath
Save that shower for your morning ritual. Studies show that when our core body temperature goes down we get sleepy. When you slip into a hot bath you first raise your body temperature but then it takes a sharp dive. How hot? Not so hot you're uncomfortable, but hot enough to sweat. How long? Fifteen to twenty minutes is good, but some researchers have noted that just 2 or 3 minutes will have a positive effect on body temperature. Studies also indicate that the closer the hot bath is more effective the closer it is to your optimal "lights out" time.
Step 6: Get a "sleeping costume"
Bedtime rituals have power because they cue your subconscious that this is a special time. Sleeping in whatever workout clothes you happen to be wearing, taking that energy with you doesn't support the transition to sleep. You can certainly wear anything comfy including a tee shirt. Just make sure it's dedicated for sleeping.
Step 7: Electronics OUT of the bedroom
Just do it. This infographic from Rasmussen College sums it up well.
For families, Melitsa Avila of Play Activities has an outline of how your family can collaborate on a media plan for the program year here. And don't forget a parking lot for the electronics.
Step 8: Reverse a morning ritual
Add a morning ritual that can be reversed when it's time for sleep sends us powerful cues...and work. Particularly if they're done with intention and mindfully. Some rituals you might try are:
• Make your bed, turn down the sheets
• Shades up for morning light, shades down for a darkened room
• Write a brief gratitude or intention list in the morning, revisit and add how the day went at night
Step 9: Breathing
A while back, the 4-7-8 breathing technique was heralded as the solution for sleep. It was "guaranteed" get you to fall asleep in a 6o seconds. The site Medical Daily has a how-to video here.
Breathing can just be part of your pre-sleep bedtime ritual. In fact stressing out about if you're doing it right would be counterproductive. Personally, I've found that the whispered exhale technique from the late Carl Stough just as effective and a lot easier.
The premise is simple: You can't inhale effectively without a complete exhale. By whispering on the exhale you're not forcing air out. What you whisper - nonsense syllables, counting 1 through 10 - acts as a kind of biofeedback monitor for the length of the exhale. When you can't whisper any more, you're at the end of the exhale and the lungs are ready for the next part of the cycle. A deep inhalation naturally follows.
Step 10: Affirmations
There is no doubt that worrying about sleep will keep you awake. So replace any worries with more positive statements and questions such as:
• I sleep easily and deeply all night long.
• I cherish my bedtime ritual and the deep sleep that follows.
• Why do I fall asleep so easily every single night?
• I am grateful for the deep, restorative sleep I get every night.
Healthy daytime routines = healthy bedtime routines
Our twenty-first century culture is re-learning what generations before knew: sleep is not optional. Sleep is not negotiable. Sleep is essential.
And the culture of convenience has made sleep a little bit more elusive. Sleep isn't a switch-on, switch off, kind of device. It has to be planned for. Some say, even courted. That's why I created the Bedtime Blueprint which puts all the information you need to know about planning your days for sleep in one place. You can download it by filling out the form below.