How can you get better sleep?

It always seems we don't get enough sleep. Screens, activities, homework, and our circadian rhythms get in the way. What can you do to get better sleep?

We’ve all heard that sleep is important for our mental and physical health, yet it always seems we don’t get enough. Screens, homework, activities, and our natural circadian rhythm all seem to get in the way. What can you do to get better sleep?

Go to bed when tired at night.

Fighting sleep initially will make it harder to go to sleep when you finally go to bed.

If you miss the tired phase, you will hit a second wind and be up for much longer in a wired phase. You won’t necessarily feel tired past bedtime, but you body will suffer the effects of sleep deprivation if you miss out on needed sleep.

Attempt to follow a regular sleep schedule.

Going to bed and getting up at about the same time every day really helps you get better sleep overall.

While sleeping in on weekends can help repair a sleep deficit, it can make it harder to get to sleep Sunday night and getting sufficient sleep every night is better than just getting more sleep a few days/week.

Try to sleep in no more than 2 hours past your school day wake up time. Sleeping in too late makes it hard to get to bed on time that night.

Follow the same routine each night at bedtime.

Brush teeth, read a book, color, take a bath or shower — do whatever helps you wind down and relax.

Repeating this every night can help your brain get ready for bed. The routine itself helps. Your body anticipates sleep is coming.

Nap to help make up missed sleep.

A short 15-20 minute nap after school can help revitalize the brain to get homework done. Just don’t sleep too long or it can interfere with bedtime.

Turn off the screens an hour before bedtime.

All lighted screens keep your melatonin levels too low. A gland in our head makes melatonin in response to darkness. The melatonin helps us feel tired.

This means that television, computer games, computer/tablet use for homework, and smartphones for socializing all keep you awake. Turn them off at least an hour before bedtime. Don’t even check your social media accounts during that last hour of your day.

Try to get all your homework that requires a computer or tablet use completed earlier in the evening. Save the homework that only involves paper books and assignments for last if needed.

If you must be on a screen close to bedtime, use night mode screen lighting and apps that take the blue lights off of the screen. I personally use the f.lux app – it’s free and easy to set up. It works well!

What about melatonin supplements?

Melatonin is available as a supplement in many forms. It is commonly used in children to help with sleep. Since up to 70% of kids with ADHD have problems falling asleep, it is especially common to be used in this group.

It’s generally considered safe, but there are some cautions. It isn’t regulated by the FDA, so what the label says and what you get might be different. Studies in children are also lacking, so specific interactions, dosing, and best uses are not known.

In my experience, there are few side effects from melatonin. Some kids still don’t sleep well with it and others are still tired the following day. It can also interact with other medications, so if you take it, be sure to talk to your doctor about it.

To learn more about melatonin, check out this great post from Dr. Craig Canapari.

Avoid caffeine in the later afternoon.

The time it takes half of the caffeine to be removed from your body is 5-6 hours.

Ideally teens would sleep and never drink caffeine, but I know that isn’t reality. Any caffeine in the later afternoon can make it harder to fall to sleep.

Don’t forget “hidden” sources of caffeine, such as chocolate, energy bars, and workout supplements.

Coffee nap

One interesting concept that has scientific backing (but goes against the “no caffeine after 3 pm” rule) is the coffee nap.

Basically, you drink coffee (or another caffeinated drink – but be careful of those loaded with sugar).

You then quickly nap for 15-20 minutes. Sodas and teas don’t work as well as plain coffee due to too much sugar and too little caffeine.

The coffee nap has been shown to be more effective than either a nap or caffeine alone. The basic premise is that your brain gets a nap before the caffeine kicks in, then you wake as the caffeine is taking effect to help you wake up.

Cautions for the coffee nap

Use the coffee nap only at times you really need it.

Don’t do this too late in the day or the caffeine will inhibit your regular night’s sleep.

Caffeine + stimulant medicines don’t mix

Be very careful using caffeine if you take a stimulant medication, such as methylphenidate or amphetamine.

When you add caffeine to this, it can cause an elevation in your heart rate and increase anxiety.

If you take a stimulant medicine most days but don’t take it other days, it would be acceptable to use caffeine for short term benefits when off your medicine. Caffeine is not a good substitute for medications long term though. The medications have a more consistent dose effect.

Talk to your doctor if you do drink caffeine so they can help you adjust your medicine if needed.

Skip the snooze button.

Set your alarm for the last possible moment you can, which allows your body to get those extra minutes of sleep.

If you need to get out of bed by 6:45, but set your alarm for 6:15 and hit snooze several times, you aren’t sleeping those 30 minutes. Set your alarm for 6:45!

Skip the late night studying.

Studying too late is ineffective.

When the brain’s tired it won’t learn as well and you will make mistakes more readily. It takes a lot longer to get anything done when you’re tired.

Go to bed and get up a little earlier to get the work finished if needed.

Of course you should also look at your time management if this happens too often. Are you involved in too many activities? Do you work or volunteer too many hours? Did you waste too much time on tv, games, or socializing? Do you put off big projects until the last minute?

Homework needs to take priority when you’re more alert in the afternoon and evening. If you have problems with this, talk to parents and teachers about what you can do.

Charge your phone in another room. 

Friends who decide to text in the middle of the night keep you from sleeping. Even phones on silent have blinking lights that can spark your curiosity.

It’s too tempting to look at your social media apps one more time if you have your phone with you as you go to bed. Your brain gets a dopamine hit every time you play a game or interact on social media. This reinforces more and more phone use, which means one last check can turn into an hour or more of playing on the phone.

Don’t use the excuse that you need your phone as an alarm. Alarm clocks are cheap. Get one and put your phone elsewhere!

If you lay awake for hours or wake frequently, try these techniques to help fall asleep: 

If these fail, talk to your parents and doctor to help find a solution.

Use your bed for sleep only.

Don’t do homework in bed.

Stop watching YouTube and Netflix in bed.

Train your brain that your bed is where you sleep.

Exercise.

Exercise helps our bodies sleep better, but it should ideally be earlier in the day.

Exercising too close to bedtime can wire us up, so if you can exercise earlier, that’s a better choice. I know some sports and dance require late practice and class, but if you can schedule exercise earlier, do it.

Get natural sunlight in the morning. 

Natural sunlight helps to set your circadian rhythm. It’s a tried and true method to reset your internal clock when traveling out of your time zone and also helps when you need to adjust your sleep schedule at home.

Keep the bedroom cool and dark.

It’s harder to sleep if the room is too warm or too bright. A fan can be used to circulate air. (The fan also can double as background noise, which is often helpful.)

Use blackout shades if needed.

Keep pets out of the bedroom. 

Your animals might love you and you love them, but if they keep you up, it’s just not worth having them around at night. They’ll still love you in the morning if you keep them away from your room.

Nicotine and alcohol affect sleep.

Nicotine and alcohol should not be used by teens in an ideal world, but I know teens will not always follow the rules.

Everyone should know that if they are using nicotine or alcohol, their quality of sleep will be affected.

Nicotine is a stimulant (like caffeine), which leads to more time sleeping lightly and less time in deep sleep. And yes, vaping and chewing lead to this problem too since it’s the nicotine that causes the problem. Don’t start these habits!

Alcohol reduces the time it takes to fall asleep but it increases sleep disturbances in the second half of the night, often leading to early wakening. Alcohol relaxes muscles, which can lead to sleep apnea (often noted as snoring). Sleep apnea does not allow the body to have restful sleep. Alcohol is also a diuretic, which might increase the need to wake to go to the bathroom during the night.

Get help if needed

If you are addicted to any substance, talk to your doctor for help stopping.

Your doctor must maintain confidentiality under most circumstances, so you can trust that they will help you and not cause more problems. The exception to confidentiality is if they think you are in immediate harm from a substance.

We all need to to prioritize our sleep. Learn how you can get better sleep.

Author: Kristen

Dr. Kristen Stuppy is a pediatrician who is passionate about sharing information to help others make informed decisions. She has a special interest in ADHD and has served on the board for ADHDKC.org since it began in 2012.

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