The answer to getting good sleep in college isn’t as trendy as the latest supplement craze or even lettuce water hack. It’s actually pretty old-school, like something-your-parents-tried-to-help-you-with old-school. It’s having a bedtime and wake-up time. And before you roll your eyes, hear us out.
At first, the idea ditching your curfew and turning into a night owl might sound appealing, particularly if you’ve avoided early classes. But according to Jennifer Mundt, Ph.D., a sleep psychologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, sticking to a schedule, especially a consistent wake-up time, is crucial for good sleep, regardless of your age.
And in college, you’re on the hook to set your own sleep schedule. So consider approaching sleep the way college is supposed to help you think about the future: Stick with what helps you sleep now, so you can prevent sleep deprivation, insomnia, and irregular sleep patterns long after your school years.
The risks of not getting enough sleep in college
Despite sleep’s importance, it’s a pillar of health that’s often overlooked, says Mundt. Many students rack up sleep debt, which brings on fatigue, anxiety, irritability, and brain fog. Stats also show that 60% of college students suffer from poor sleep quality and nearly 8% struggle with insomnia.
This can all contribute to havoc on your grades, research shows, making it more likely that you’ll drop an important class. In fact, sleep disturbances can be just as damaging to your college career as binge drinking, stress, and drug use.
So how do you make sure this trend doesn’t come after you? Here are some guidelines for better sleep in college below.
Adjust your sleep schedule slowly
As with any new routine, keep in mind that adjustment takes time, reports the National Sleep Foundation. Therefore, give yourself permission slowly shift your sleep-wake times.
For instance, if your goal is to hit the hay at 11 p.m. instead of 1 a.m., adjust your bedtime in 15-minute increments each night. Once you have your new schedule down, try to be consistent, and sleep in no more than an extra hour on weekends, advises Mundt.
Factor in wind-down time
According to sleep experts, adults need at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Mundt recommends starting with a consistent bedtime and wake-up time each day and giving yourself enough time to get ready to sleep. When you consider wind-down time as part of your sleep routine, it can help you avoid the “oh no, now I should get ready for bed” thoughts.
Taking 30 minutes to an hour to wind down can also help prepare your brain for sleep mode. During this time, put away your screens (phones, TV, and computer) and stick with relaxing activities. To prep for bed, you might take a warm shower, read a few chapters of your favorite book, or write in your journal.
Deep breathing, which studies show deep breathing elicits the body's relaxation response, can also decrease tension and help you drift off.
Let the sunshine in
Don’t let your first outdoor activity be running to the classroom. To get the best out of your sleep schedule, make time for sunshine before class begins. According to Mundt, bright light is vital for regulating your circadian rhythm.
Start by making a concerted effort to spend time outside, especially during the morning, Mundt advises.
Try to exercise outdoors or leave for class a little early so you can enjoy a brief walk. Find a coffee shop off campus to visit as part of a routine. If you don’t want to venture out alone, invite a new friend or your roommate to join you. Checking items off your to-do list earlier in the day can help curb late-night revenge bedtime procrastination.
Another trick: Make sure to open the blinds in your dorm room to let natural sunlight be your alarm clock.
Monitor your alcohol and caffeine intake
If you typically reach for espresso to curb your mid-day slump, be mindful of your intake, cautions Mundt. One study found that drinking caffeinated beverages even six hours before bedtime could still disrupt sleep. Take your sleepiness as a cue for rest or an earlier bedtime instead, and replace those caffeine-infused bevs with sparkling water or non-caffeinated tea.
If you’re old enough to drink, know that a nightcap before bed doesn't do wonders for your rest. As the alcohol wears off, the sedating effect lessens, making it harder to fall into deep sleep. If possible, try to avoid alcohol or, at the very least, limit your consumption, Mundt recommends. Sugary punches and juice-based drinks are especially detrimental, due to the sugar rush.
Take note of when you naturally get sleepy
Building your bedtime around your natural circadian rhythm is the best way to develop better sleep habits in the long-term. This means not forcing yourself to go to sleep — but also being aware of what might be keeping your mind and body alert.
“In these situations, don’t force yourself to sleep. Sleep will happen naturally when your body is ready,” says Mundt. If you can’t fall asleep after 30 to 40 minutes, get up and do something relaxing out of bed.
Swap Netflix and chat for meditation and chill
Cozying up in bed to watch Netflix or TikTok videos might seem like the perfect way to unwind, but electronics in bed are about as incompatible as night and day. Studies show using these devices in the bedroom can be a health hazard.
For starters, activities like doomscrolling or playing games can stimulate the mind, which delays bedtime. Your phone or tablet’s blue light also alters the body’s production of melatonin, which can make you feel more alert. Switching to journaling or meditation as a form of relaxation can help your brain shift away from anxiety to calm.
To banish electronics, choose a set time to turn them off. If your smartphone is also your alarm clock, go retro and replace it with an old-fashioned alarm clock.
Don’t give in to exam anxiety
Anxiety and worry can make the stress hormone, cortisol, spike, which can make you feel more alert. But you don’t want to mistake that as a sign to keep studying.
Researchers have also found that students who sleep longer and better, consistently, perform better academically. Sleep, especially in the REM stage, is profoundly important for stabilizing your memory.
In these sleepless cases, try a little reverse psychology and tell yourself not to fall asleep. Psychologists call this “paradoxical intention,” a cognitive trick that helps us face our fears. Sleep researchers say this tip can help put the brakes on insomnia, a common sleep problem that affects 10 to 30% of Americans.
Move your body
If you aren’t exercising outside in the morning with a brisk walk, make time for exercise during the day. Moving your body, even for 30 minutes each day can improve your sleep. But be mindful of evening workouts. Late-night gym sessions can have the opposite effect and make the body feel more alert.
If you’re new to exercise, start with a low-impact exercise like walking, yoga, or the elliptical machine. You don’t need to be a marathon runner to reap the benefits of working out. Light exercise can be just as beneficial for your sleep and bolster your mood.
Loud noises and sleep aren't BFFs, especially with a roommate around. That said, keeping your bedroom as quiet as possible when sharing a room might be a tad challenging. You can start by investing in noise-cancelling headphones, which work both ways in preventing loud noises.
If your neighbor next door doesn’t seem to use headphones, try to drown out the disco with a white noise machine. And if you're that super-light sleeper who wakes at the sound of a pinprick, you might opt for some earplugs.
Sync up your bedtime based on your class schedule
One benefit of choosing your own classes is that you don’t necessarily need to wake up at the crack of dawn. With that in mind, you should still try to keep the same bedtime every day, even if you have a day where classes start at 2 p.m.
If you do have one day that’s an early class, try to sync your sleep schedule around that class. For instance, if the class starts at 10 a.m., aim to wake-up by 8:30 or 9 each day. While it’s easy to throw on some athleisure and head to class for that one day, while sleeping in the others, keeping the same schedule helps you establish better sleep habits.
Plus you’ll have so much extra time in the mornings, you can get in your personal time before you engage with the rest of the world.
Honor your sleep with consistency
It’s no secret that the pandemic brought on sleep problems like “COVID-somnia” for over 50% of Americans. But even if your slumber has been off kilter, it’s never too late to find a routine. Sleep is pretty much your body’s CEO, responsible for making sure your digestive, immune, and nervous systems operate smoothly.
The key, Mundt adds, is choosing what works best for you but isn't overly rigid. It can be easy to let other habits fall wayside when you become in charge of your own time, so leave room for everything else that goes into establishing healthy sleep patterns, like staying hydrated, balanced meals, and taking care of your emotional health.