Health and Wellness

‘It doesn’t have to be that magic 8’: Why this popular sleep advice might be making you feel worse

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One of the most popular pieces of advice is that eight hours of sleep each night is ideal.

But actually, aiming for more sleep than you need may make you feel groggy when you wake up, according to Shelby Harris, licensed clinical psychologist and director of sleep health at Sleepopolis.

"There's a range, between seven to nine hours, sometimes as little as six," Harris says. "Everyone's a little different, so it really varies based on the person."

"It doesn't have to be that magic eight. If someone's a good sleeper at seven hours, forcing yourself to try and get eight, could actually make it worse," Harris says.

It is also a common assumption that you should feel rested when you wake up every morning, but that's not realistic for everyone. 

And there is often pressure to get the best night's sleep every single night, but that is not often the case — which is totally normal, she adds. "I'm a sleep doctor, and I don't sleep perfectly every single night."

Striving for five nights a week of good rest is a more reasonable goal than seven nights if you struggle with insomnia, Harris says.

More nights of great sleep each week is the goal, but you shouldn't obsess over it, she adds. And the key to achieving good rest is consistency.

Here are more tips for getting better sleep, from experts.

3 habits to improve your quality of sleep

1. Stick to a sleep routine

Falling asleep will be a more natural process if you aim to rest around the same time each night, says Temitayo Oyegbile-Chidi, a sleep neurologist, chair of the board of directors for National Sleep Foundation and associate professor of neurology at UC Davis.

"That actually teaches your body that it's time to go to sleep. You'll find that if you keep a very specific routine in the evening, it'll be like the proverbial statement, 'Falling asleep before your head hits the pillow,'" she says.

Though, it's important to recognize that schedules change and you won't always be able to rest at the same exact time, every single night.

As a rule of thumb, Harris suggests not exceeding a 90-minute window -- meaning that to maintain your sleep schedule you should not go to sleep an hour and a half before or after your typical bedtime.

Sticking to a relaxing routine can limit the time that you're "tossing and turning" in bed," Oyegbile-Chidi says. And the best way to get your body into sleep mode is to prepare at least 30 minutes before bedtime.

Here are some practices to consider as you prepare for bed:

  • Dimming the lights in your room 
  • Having a warm cup of herbal tea
  • Meditating for a few minutes
  • Turning off all screens including televisions and phones
  • Reading relaxing, non-anxiety-inducing books
  • Listening to calming podcasts

"It really doesn't have to be any one magic thing, it's just whatever you find that helps to quiet your brain, quiet your body and it's relaxing," Harris says.

Harris encourages you to try powering down an hour before bed if you can, but to not put too much pressure on yourself if you can't dedicate that much time. 

"If you're someone who never has an hour, start with 10 minutes," she says. "Just try to power down and make some demarcation between day and night, then work towards 15 minutes. Make it small, attainable steps."

2. Designate some time for worrying

Let's face it: your obligations often keep you up at night. The remedy for this may be to build time into your schedule to go down your list of worries and come up with solutions, says Harris.

"You allow yourself to worry about these things, but only once a day as opposed to all day long," she says.

As you assess the things you need to take care of, you can decide what is immediate and what can actually wait until tomorrow, Harris notes.

And by writing up a to-do list, you can lighten the load by reassuring yourself that your responsibilities will be fulfilled, she says.

"When you get in bed, if you still are worrying, you can say, 'I've already taken care of it. I've already written it down. I need to let it go,'" Harris says.

Harris also suggests journaling and meditating during the day. The practice can allow you to let go of the worries a lot easier if they pop into your mind later at night when you're trying to rest.

3. If you're a parent, work on your child's sleep first

Having a full hour to wind down before bed is even tougher for parents, but prioritizing what needs to get done before resting is extremely important. 

To get better sleep for yourself, the best place to start may be to fix your child's sleep schedule first.

Many parents struggle with their own sleep when their children don't have a set bedtime, Harris says.

Developing a sleep schedule for your kids will vary depending on their age, and it won't be perfect every night. But, "when they're on a little bit more of a predictable schedule, it helps you to understand how your evening is going to go," Harris says.

Once your kid is tucked away, you can ask yourself these questions before cutting into your own sleep time for something like household duties:

  1. What has to get done?
  2. What would I like to get done?
  3. What can wait until tomorrow?
  4. What do I not care as much about but other people expect to get done or want me to do?

"The more you sleep at night and prioritize rest, the more efficient you'll be in your day to do the things you need to do," Harris says.

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