Sleep easy

There’s a lot you can do to improve sleep. Although many of these tips may seem like common sense, if you have trouble sleeping, these five good habits will help you get quality slumber.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
There’s a lot you can do to improve sleep.
Although many of these tips may seem like common sense, if you have trouble sleeping, these five good habits will help you get quality slumber.
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Stick to the same bedtime each night.

Your body clock will help you feel sleepy at bedtime if there is a regular sleep routine. By ignoring your sleep signals and staying up late anyway, you may miss the window of opportunity for sleep.

Going to bed too early can also disturb your sleep. In the hour before going to bed, it is important to have a relaxing sleep routine. This may include a warm bath, reading quietly or enjoying a warm milk drink.

Don’t go to bed hungry It is important to not be hungry at bedtime, but having a stomach that’s too full can also make it difficult to sleep. Time your evening meal so that you finish eating at least two hours before bedtime. Some people find that having a light snack at bedtime improves their sleep.

Dietitian Kellie Bilinski says eating three decent meals, supplemented with healthy snacks and enough water throughout the day to keep you well hydrated during the night, can help you in your quest for sweet slumber.

“Ideally, your evening meal won’t be overly huge and you’ll eat it two or three hours before bed,” she says.

Some people sleep more easily after a small pre-bed snack. “Heavy, fatty or spicy meals can interfere with sleep, but foods such as bananas, porridge or cheese make good evening snacks because they contain tryptophan, a natural sleep aid,” Kellie adds.

Say no to stimulants Caffeine should be avoided for at least four hours before going to bed – this includes coffee, tea, cola and chocolate. Nicotine is a stimulant, so smoking also makes it difficult to sleep. Alcohol might help you to get to sleep, but will lead to a restless sleep and can exacerbate problems like snoring and sleep apnoea.

Avoid any stimulating activities in the hour before bed – these include exercise, computer games, television and important discussions that will make it hard for you to quieten your mind.

Kellie says it’s best to avoid anything containing caffeine from about mid-afternoon.

“Be aware of ‘hidden’ caffeine in chocolate, soft drinks and even decaf coffee,” she advises. “Also, certain medications, including some painkillers, may contain caffeine, so check the labels and if you think they may be keeping you awake, speak to your doctor about finding possible alternatives.”

Sleep physician Dr Maree Barnes says smoking, drinking alcohol, watching TV and sitting in front of a computer screen are also stimulants that can keep you awake.

“The light from screens is of similar frequency to sunlight, and will send your body the message that it’s daylight so it will switch off your sleep hormones,” Dr Barnes explains.

Exercise later (but not too late) Research shows that regular exercise helps you sleep better. Most experts advise against vigorous exercise in the three hours before bedtime, but there is some evidence that moderate exercise in the early evening can help with insomnia.

Sacrificing an hour of slumber to make that early morning gym class might inadvertently be sabotaging your weight-loss efforts too, says Dr Carmel Harrington, sleep therapist and author of The Sleep Diet.

“The approach to weight loss is like a three-legged table: Eating less, exercising more and making sure you get enough sleep,” Dr Harrington says.

“If just one of these is missing, your metabolic health may suffer and you’ll have trouble losing excess weight. So before you start your next diet, take two to three weeks to get your sleep under control first.”

Get up if you have to Having a regular bedtime is good for you, but if you’re spending too much time waiting to fall asleep it’s best to get up, says sleep scientist Dr Delwyn Bartlett.

“If you’ve been in bed for 15 minutes or so and can’t sleep, get up and do something boring in dim light,” says Dr Bartlett. “Go back to bed again when you’re less awake.”

Sit quietly in a dimly lit room and read something light. Do not watch television, use a computer or mobile phone, eat, drink or do household chores. When you feel sleepy again, go back to bed. This helps your mind link your bed with sleep, and not with being agitated and unable to sleep.

A recent study found that having children sleep in your bed rather than getting up to them in the night may give you about 24 minutes more snooze time, but your sleep quality won’t be as good.

Dr Bartlett says it can sometimes be easier to let your child sleep with you in certain circumstances but if it becomes a habit, it’s better to provide comfort, then take them back to their own bed.