I like to read a book before bed each night. It’s a nice screen-free evening ritual, one that almost always results in nodding off mid-chapter. After years of my read-to-sleep pipeline, I wondered: Does reading a book at night fast-track you into sleep mode?
The answer is nuanced, and that’s because what feels relaxing for one person might be stimulating, boring, or stressful for another.
Take, for example, someone who only reads thrillers, horror novels, or gruesome war stories. Cracking open that genre isn’t likely to lull you into a tranquil, relaxed state, an essential component of sleep.
The way sleep works, two things need to happen, Fiona Barwick, Ph.D., the director of the Sleep & Circadian Health Program at Stanford University School of Medicine, explains. First, your sleep drive needs to be high. The National Sleep Foundation defines your sleep drive as “a homeostatic system in your brain which makes you feel sleepy.”
Think of this as a biological drive that works like hunger. The longer you go without eating, the hungrier you get. Similarly, the longer you stay awake, the more ready you’ll be for sleep.
The second essential component for sleep: You need to be relaxed.
“So if you sit down in the evening with a book, and your sleep drive is high, and you’re relaxed, you’re going to feel sleepy,” Barwick says.
What relaxes someone is highly personal, though. Anyone who finds reading calming can satisfy that second need for sleep — relaxation — if their circadian rhythm is cueing that it’s sleep time. Someone else might find a podcast, warm bath, soothing music, or a guided meditation relaxing.
“It really depends on the type of activity and how you as an individual respond to it,” Barwick says.
Is reading before bed something a sleep specialist might recommend to someone with a sleep disorder?
No, Barwick says, for a couple of reasons.
First, reading a book is too specific and subjective. Some people might feel more activated by a book, regardless of the genre, due to the engaging nature of reading or their interest in the storytelling.
What’s more, the circadian rhythm and sleep drive also come into play. If someone is a natural night owl and their bedtime is 2 a.m., it doesn’t matter if reading a book relaxes them at 9 p.m. If they engage in the activity ahead of time when their body feels naturally ready for sleep, the book isn’t going to serve as a sleep aid.
“Not only do you have to have a high sleep drive and allow yourself to relax, you have to be in the right circadian window,” Barwick says. “All the relaxation in the world won’t help” if a night owl tries to go to bed too early.
This also brings up another important distinction when auditing your body for signs of sleepiness: Are you feeling tired, or are you feeling sleepy?
“They are not the same, and we confuse them to our detriment,” Barwick says.
Sleepiness is when your sleep drive is high enough for you to fall asleep. You might also have a cold or infection or be on medications, which can serve as a catalyst for the need for sleep.
Feeling tired, though, is when you might feel physically exhausted but not necessarily sleep-ready. “You could run a marathon and take a six-hour exam and feel wiped without being ready to sleep,” Barwick says. “There are so many things having nothing to do with sleep that cause people to feel tired.”
Those include spending too much time in bed, not being physically active enough, being stressed or anxious or in pain, being bored, not eating at the right times, not drinking enough water, a circadian dip in the afternoon, or medical conditions, just to name a few.
“So people confuse these two, and if they go to bed when they’re tired and not sleepy, they will lie awake,” Barwick says, or awaken after short sleep.
If you’re feeling absolutely drained after a major workout, cram session, or a host of other non-sleep-related reasons, try to avoid getting in bed to decompress. You want to train your brain to associate your bed with sleep.
What if, instead of reading a book before bed, you just splay out in bed for the same amount of time you’d have spent reading? Could that count as relaxation since you’re not engaged in a stimulating activity?
“When people are just lying in bed, they are not necessarily thinking happy thoughts,” Barwick says. “They’re going back over the day and going over stressful things and anticipating tomorrow.”
In short, just because you’re not doing anything doesn’t mean you are setting yourself up for relaxation success. Your brain is a powerful driver of sleep, and if it’s teeming with racing thoughts or stressful reminders, simply lounging around without intentional relaxation can lead to unpleasant intrusions.
In that case, a book can work well as a relaxation tool since it’s a distraction in an enjoyable way. Unless you are reading your own memoir, it can take your mind off the tedious and potentially anxiety-inducing fragments of your day-to-day life.
Another benefit of reading a book before bed is it gets you off your screens. “The state of relaxation is critical nowadays,” Barwick says. “Everyone’s on their screens,” noting that the blue light from devices like your phones, computers, and TVs is more activating.
If you’re wondering whether a single-use e-reader counts as a screen, it doesn’t. (Unless you hacked your Kindle to send you Instagram push notifications.) Devices that have just one job — letting you read a book and periodicals — are free from the typical intrusions of your other internet-enabled devices like pings, scrolling, and hours of TikTok videos. Plus, most of these use e-ink technology, a type of display that is less stimulating and straining than LCD and OLED screens, especially if you’re able to read them in a warmer mode (and better for your eye health).
No matter your choice of activity, it’s important to mind the distinction between relaxing and distracting, especially if that distraction is stimulating, like surfing the web or scrolling through social media on your phone before bed.
And it’s important to reserve your bed for sleep so your brain knows that’s what the bed is for. If you work on building that connection, “you will actually feel sleepy when you get into bed versus getting into bed when you’re tired,” Barwick says. Beds should be reserved for sex and sleep rather than watching your favorite show.
How can you tell whether you are relaxed or simply distracted?
If you’re relaxed, Barwick says, you’ll notice some physical signs: You may start to yawn, your eyes may feel heavy, your breathing might slow, your thoughts might calm down, your body might feel a little heavier, your muscles a little looser. This could look and feel different for each person, but you should ultimately feel yourself start to slow down. If you don’t feel that shift toward relaxation, this may not be your right bedtime activity.
For me, reading a book before bed checks nearly all of these boxes: It is relaxing and helps me fall asleep.
This all comes back to identifying whether you’re actually sleepy and, if so, exclusively cultivating relaxation activities in bed. And hey, that might be reading a book.