When you’re a light sleeper, getting a full night of shut-eye can feel impossible. Even the slightest disturbance—your partner sneezing in the other room or a flash of light from a passing car’s headlight—can jolt you awake and leave you tossing and turning.
“It’s pretty subjective as to what you’d consider to be a light sleeper, but generally people complain about sleeping too lightly when they wake up a lot or are easily disturbed by a partner, noise, or temperature,” explains Janet Kennedy, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, and author of “The Good Sleeper."
While it may not (yet!) be possible to transform people from light sleepers into heavier sleepers, the good news is that there are easy ways for light sleepers to minimize the impact of disruptions and sleep more soundly throughout the night.
Here’s how to get good sleep as a light sleeper, according to sleep professionals.
Mute the outside world
Noise is the ultimate nemesis for light sleepers. Finding ways to mute it (or at least make it less distracting) can go a long way in helping light sleepers get that uninterrupted seven to nine hours.
If noise is a consistent issue, one thing that can help is to mask it by playing white noise, recommends Kennedy.
“White noise creates a sound buffer. Even if it doesn’t block out all of the noise, it makes it so that the noise that does get through isn’t so alarming,” Kennedy says. “There’s a curtain of white noise between you and other noise.”
This type of broadband noise, which sounds like a hissing static, has proven effective at masking disruptive noise in critical care units and helping patients avoid sleep loss, according to a 2016 study.
White noise, along with other “colored” noises for sleep, can be played from apps on your phone, but Kennedy recommends investing in a white noise machine like the kind therapists use to ensure privacy in their offices. She finds these machines are more effective at buffering sound than digital white noise from an app.
Another option: wearing noise-canceling headphones. Jaime Tartar, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Nova Southeastern University and sleep specialist with the National Academy of Sports Medicine, finds noise-canceling headphones so essential for getting good sleep on the road that she includes them in her travel sleep kit. They work by emitting the opposite frequency of outside noise that may be around you, effectively preventing you from hearing unwanted noise.
Earplugs can also quiet the outside world for light sleepers. It may take some trial and error to find a pair of earplugs that both seal against noise and feel comfortable in your ears all night long, so it’s worth experimenting with sizes, materials, and decibel levels to see which works best for you.
Join the dark side
Making your bedroom as dark as possible can make it easier to slip into the deeper stages of sleep and get the quality Zzz’s your body needs, says Tartar.
“When you’re in deep sleep, it’s much more difficult for your body to wake up and respond to the external environment,” she explains. “You absolutely need to sleep in the dark.”
She recommends that light sleepers slip on an eye mask at bedtime. That way, external lights that might not bother heavy sleepers — the glow of a smartphone screen or the blink of a wireless router — will not affect your sleep.
“Using an eye mask also creates a feeling of sensory deprivation that helps your body feel cocooned during the night,” adds Kennedy.
An eye mask might not be an option if you’re sensitive to things touching your face, though. In that case, consider installing blackout curtains over your windows to shield your bedroom from lights outside, perhaps paired with a shade to ensure light doesn’t come in through vertical cracks. Then, scan your bedroom for any sources of light and find ways to block it. Move gadgets that light up other places in your home, like an office or living room. You can also use electrical tape or stickers to block out annoying LEDs on your devices and add a strip at the base of your door for light that filters in from the hallway.
Cool your body down
Feeling too hot while you sleep is one of the biggest sources of overnight awakenings, and this is especially true if you’re a light sleeper. In fact, research from 2017 found that sleep disruptions tend to be most severe during the summer when bedrooms can feel extra stuffy.
Start by adjusting your thermostat. Keeping the temperature between 60 and 67° F creates the cool, cave-like sleeping environment most people prefer, per Cleveland Clinic.
Taking a warm shower or bath within two hours of bedtime can also provide sleep benefits, including helping you fall asleep more quickly, improve sleep efficiency, and get higher quality sleep, according to a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis. This is because a warm shower or bath helps change the core temperature of your body, and the cooldown you experience after getting out of the bath is a signal to the body’s circadian rhythm that it’s time for bed, says Kennedy.
Strike a balance with co-sleeping partners
Bed partners are another common sleep disruptor. Sharing the bed with someone else, such as a partner or your child, can mean noises, tosses and turns, and other distractions that can diminish zzz’s for light sleepers. There are ways to make it work, though.
“Anything you can do to control your local sleep environment can help you sleep more peacefully with someone else,” says Tartar. “Wear a sleep mask and noise-canceling headphones. A good mattress and a weighted blanket can also prevent you from feeling the movements of a partner in your bed.”
If you’re waking up on different schedules, sleeping partners should consider swapping out a traditional audio alarm for something less disruptive (like a silent vibration alarm from a wearable fitness tracker) to make it easier for the other person to sleep through it.
For some light sleepers, getting a “sleep divorce” from a partner might be the only way to get a good night's rest on a consistent basis.
“Sleeping apart is a decision to come together so everyone’s well rested and healthy,” notes Kennedy. “It doesn’t mean you have no intimacy—it means you have to be mindful about making time for intimacy in other ways.”
Develop better daytime habits
Getting better sleep as a light sleeper isn’t just about what happens at night—it also depends on your daytime habits, too. And while these habits benefit everyone, they can make a big impact on light sleepers.
Start by getting a blast of sunlight early in the morning, shortly after waking up. This helps set your body’s internal clock, letting your circadian rhythm know that it’s time to be alert, which also helps with wind-down timing later on, particularly when you avoid too much evening screentime, which can negatively stimulate your brain.
“Getting 10 to 20 minutes of natural sunlight as close to waking up as possible, then getting little to no light at night, is a trigger for melatonin production,” says Tartar.
Exercise can also help with sleep. “You release cytokines when you exercise, and they seem to play a role in helping with sleep,” Tartar says. “We know people sleep better and more deeply when they exercise, so a light sleeper can definitely benefit.”
Finally, try to avoid caffeine or alcohol too close to bedtime. Both substances can make it harder to get deep sleep, which may make you even more prone to waking up at the slightest disruption, which is the last thing a light sleeper needs.
Experts say you should cut off caffeine eight to 10 hours before bed. As for alcohol, any amount can harm your sleep, but drinking close to bedtime tends to have a worse impact. If you are drinking, try not to surpass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for alcohol use (no more than two drinks for men, one drink for women) and avoid any alcohol within at least three hours of bedtime.
Practice calming techniques
For many light sleepers, it’s challenging to get back to sleep once your sleep has been interrupted. Tossing and turning can become a source of anxiety that prolongs the awakening, making it difficult to relax enough to drift off again.
“If you wake up at night and have a difficult time getting back to bed, you want to use strategies to calm down the nervous system,” explains Tartar.
Resist the urge to pick up your smartphone and start scrolling (The blue light will only make things worse!). Instead, try an activity that’s very relaxing and not overly stimulating, such as reading a book in dim lighting or listening to a soothing playlist, guided meditation, or a dry podcast. Relaxation exercises (like breathwork and image visualizations) can also help you fall back asleep.
“Your brain wants to focus on anxiety-provoking thoughts. We want to steer it away from that and toward relaxing activities,” says Tartar.
Get cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia
Being a light sleeper doesn’t necessarily mean you have insomnia. But if you’ve had trouble falling or staying asleep at least three nights per week for three months or more, you might be dealing with a chronic condition, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Talk to your doctor about your sleeping problems. If you are diagnosed with insomnia, you can get it treated through cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). It teaches you how to adjust your mindset around sleep and develop better sleeping habits in six to eight sessions with a trained therapist.
“Sleep isn’t 100% predictable, even in the best of circumstances,” Kennedy says. “But CBT-I can help you become more resilient to disruptions that do happen.”
And that resilience can feel like a superpower to a light sleeper next time the barking dog next door (or any other disruption) wakes them up in the dead of night.