Some people expect to get the same quality of sleep night after night, as long as they’re sleeping in their own bed, but that’s unrealistic for several reasons. Among them is the reality that what you do before bed and the environment of your bedroom have real effects on just about every aspect of your sleep, from how quickly you fall asleep to how long you stay sleep, as well as how well you sleep throughout the night. The various factors all create sleep hygiene — a term that’s used to describe healthy habits and environmental factors that are conducive to a good night’s sleep. “In general, sleep hygiene sets the stage for sleep,” says Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, sleep advisor to Sleep.com, and author of The Sleep Solution and The Rested Child.
To gain insight into the importance of sleep hygiene and whether or not it actually has an objective impact on sleep, we teamed up with SleepScore Labs, our partner in sleep data and science expertise. We set out to learn more about the impact of our habits and sleep environment on our slumber. “Despite good sleep hygiene being used and widely recommended since the 1970s, few studies have examined how sleep hygiene practices actually affect objectively measured sleep in the general population,” says Elie Gottlieb, Ph.D., lead applied sleep scientist at SleepScore Labs.
SleepScore Labs surveyed 720 people between June 2022 and August 2022 about their sleep hygiene habits and sleep quality. The survey included 18 hygiene-related questions — about sticking to the same bedtimes and awakening times; lifestyle habits; activities performed before bedtime; bedroom characteristics; and more — in order to evaluate and score the respondents’ sleep hygiene habits. For research purposes, a higher sleep hygiene score indicates worse sleep hygiene. The survey results were compared with objective sleep data from respondents’ sleep trackers. SleepScore’s analysis showed a correlation between sleep hygiene and the resulting sleep experienced by respondents. Poorer self-reported sleep hygiene was associated with significant reductions in three key sleep variables: total sleep time, SleepScore (an objective measure of sleep quality), and REM sleep duration.
The data suggest that people with better sleep hygiene feel less sleepy during the day in addition to experiencing better total sleep time, sleep quality, and REM sleep duration.
SleepScore Labs found that after adjusting for age and gender, a 10-point increase in sleep hygiene score is associated with an 8.6-minute decrease in total sleep time, which adds up to about 4.5 lost hours of sleep per month. The same 10-point increase correlates to a 1.5-point decrease in SleepScore and 2.3 fewer minutes of REM sleep, the time when your brain dreams and consolidates memories.
The resulting data indicates the value of an overall commitment to healthy sleep routines, rather than one specific factor. In reviewing respondents’ individual habits and tendencies, such as social media use, a tendency to overthink things, reliance on daytime naps, and consumption of alcohol or caffeine before bed, no single factor seemed to directly impact sleep. “Unexpectedly, we could not identify a relationship between individual [sleep] hygiene factors and sleep, perhaps suggesting that sleep health is not defined by one single behavior but by the sum of its parts,” says Gottlieb. “When cumulative sleep hygiene scores were analyzed, we found significant associations with both sleep duration and SleepScore, an objective measure of sleep quality.” The data also show that people with better sleep hygiene have longer periods of REM sleep and feel less sleepy during the day.
How sleep hygiene changes by generation and gender
SleepScore’s analysis showed that adherence to good sleep hygiene practices varies by both age and gender. Younger adults have poorer sleep hygiene than older people do — Gen Zers, aged 25 and below, have the poorest sleep hygiene scores. Sleep hygiene scores consistently improved each decade, with those in the 77-plus crowd having the best sleep hygiene.
“Younger people have worse sleep hygiene because they can get away with it — they don’t feel the effects as much,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., a psychologist and board-certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist based in Durham, North Carolina, and author of the forthcoming book Hello Sleep. “It catches up to people more as they get older.”
Meanwhile, women have poorer sleep hygiene habits than men do. “[Initially,] I was surprised that females had a worse sleep hygiene score than men,” Wu says, but after looking closely at the items in the survey — such as feeling stressed, engaging in overthinking, or feeling awake while in bed — this finding aligned with Wu’s observations about gender habits. “Women tend to carry more of the emotional and intellectual labor of caring for a household and their families, and they are more prone to having trouble turning off their brains,” she notes.
The most common stumbling blocks affecting sleep hygiene
Overall, the survey found that the top four poor sleep-hygiene practices, regardless of age or gender, are:
- Going to bed at different times, from day to day
- Waking up at different times, from day to day
- Overthinking or worrying while in bed
- Using the bed for activities other than sleeping or sex (like watching TV or working)
While there wasn’t much difference in the ranking of sleep-hygiene variables between men and women, there were a few notable gender variations when it comes to sleep-hygiene no-no’s. For one, women were far more likely to report social media use before bed — it was the fourth-most-common reply for women, and the ninth-most-common reply for men. Women also reported performing other activities close to bedtime and staying in bed longer than they should two or three times per week. Men were more likely to report consuming alcohol or caffeine too close to bedtime (this was the fifth-most-common reply for men but only the eighth most common for women). Men also reported feeling awake before bed and engaging in mentally stimulating work before bed far more regularly than women.
Only 8 to 21% of users reported that they sometimes engaged in poor bedroom-environment sleep hygiene practices, such as sleeping in a too-bright or excessively noisy room, sleeping on an uncomfortable bed or mattress, or slumbering in a room that is overly warm, cold, or humid.
What keeps the generations up at night?
As far as age-related differences in poor sleep-hygiene practices go, there were two particularly noteworthy variations: Those from Gen Z reported that use of social media for at least 30 minutes while in bed before going to sleep topped their list of bad sleep-hygiene habits. By contrast, those ages 77 and older were the most likely to report taking daytime naps for longer than half an hour.
Engaging in stimulating activities before bed was most commonly reported by the Gen Z cohort, while consuming alcohol and caffeine were bigger issues for those in Gen X and the 77+ groups. Doing mentally stimulating work (such as paying bills or scheduling meetings) within an hour of bedtime was most commonly reported by millennials, while feeling awake or alert in bed was most common among baby boomers and those in the 77+ crowd. Ambient temperature troubles were most often reported by those 77 and older.
Interestingly, engaging in moderate or high-intensity exercise within an hour of bedtime, having an uncomfortable bed, a noisy or overly bright bedroom, or a heavy meal in the evening were the five least common sleep-hygiene mistakes across all generations.
“We think of sleep hygiene as an individual behavioral issue, but some of it is not up to us,” Wu says. As an example, she notes that some people may face environmental factors — such as temperature, loudness, or brightness problems — that aren’t within their control or that they can’t afford to improve.
How to use sleep hygiene to help you sleep better
“I think of sleep hygiene as similar to dental hygiene — as establishing a good pattern for preventing [sleep] problems down the road,” Wu says. “Having sleep hygiene as part of your daily routine is a good investment in your well-being for the long term.”
In other words, good sleep hygiene habits can help set the stage for a restful night’s sleep, but they’re not a cure for sleep disorders. “There’s a perception that if you’ve got a problem with sleep [such as insomnia], you can fix it with sleep hygiene, but that’s rarely true,” adds Winter. “The number of people who come to see me for help with sleep have already tried all the basics.”
Gottlieb agrees. “One major misconception is that sleep hygiene is a panacea,” he says. “For those suffering from a clinical sleep disorder, sleep hygiene may be used as an adjunct lifestyle adjustment, but other treatments beyond such behavioral changes as reducing caffeine intake or keeping a consistent schedule may be necessary.”
How to improve your sleep hygiene
These caveats aside, many people are “not doing the things they need to do to have better sleep,” Winter says. It’s important, he says, to “focus on what’s within your control.” That means maintaining a consistent bedtime and wake-up time and turning off all digital devices — and abstaining from using social media — at least an hour before going to bed. It also means only using your bed for sleeping and sex, not other activities, and trying to make your bedroom feel like a calm, comfortable oasis.
To that end, try to make your bedroom dark and quiet, with a comfortable, supportive mattress and pillows. To eliminate unwanted light, consider installing blackout shades or heavy curtains. And try to block noise from neighbors, traffic, or other people you live with; if you can’t, try masking it with a fan or a white noise machine. If possible, lower the thermostat because the optimal temperature for sleep is between 65 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, Winter suggests. “People tend to sleep better in cooler temperatures, whereas heat is disruptive to sleep.” If you’re concerned about getting cold during the night, place an extra blanket at the foot of the bed that you can pull on or off as needed.
There are other important sleep hygiene habits to develop: Avoid sneaky sleep saboteurs — such as consuming caffeine late in the day, eating a rich or heavy meal in the evening or overdoing it with cocktails at night. Try to create a relaxing pre-bedtime routine — such as taking a warm bath or shower, meditating, engaging in deep breathing or stretching exercises, reading something enjoyable, or writing in a journal — to signal to your mind and body that it’s time to wind down. Save the lingering chores and work tasks for the next day.
During your waking hours, engage in moderate-to-vigorous exercise for at least 30 minutes every day, preferably outside in the morning or afternoon, because it can help you sleep better at night; besides helping to regulate your circadian rhythms, physical activity helps relieve stress and anxiety. If you feel particularly tired in the afternoon, taking a 20-to-30-minute nap can be restorative, Winter says, but napping longer than that could interfere with your nighttime slumber.
If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and being awake is stressing you out, it’s best to get out of bed and go to another room. Do something relaxing like reading a not-too-stimulating book or listening to music under dim lights until the urge to snooze returns, then go back to bed. This way you won’t start to associate your bed with not sleeping. “Above all, be gentle and compassionate [toward yourself] when you miss a night of optimal sleep or are lying in bed, realizing you’ll only be able to get six hours of sleep that night,” Gottlieb says. “Anxiety and depression are sleep’s worst nightmare.”
Beyond these basic sleep-hygiene practices, you can custom-tailor your strategies based on your unique sleep patterns and daily habits, Gottlieb adds. To take the guesswork out of which sleep hygiene strategies may make a difference for you, you can download the Sleep.com app, which “provides personalized and dynamic sleep hygiene recommendations” based on your daily behaviors and current sleep challenges.