How’d you sleep last night? The answer is more complicated than you might think.
Most people will wake up, look at the clock, and either groan or accept the morning hour they see on the screen. That reaction alone says a lot — but good sleep is not defined by hours.
“We have to set away from the metric of ‘speed of unconsciousness’ or ‘being out cold’ as a direct indicator of good sleep. How sleepy you are during the day is much better,” says Dr. Chris W. Winter, neurologist, Sleep.com advisor, and author of the forthcoming “The Rested Child”.
“In other words, if someone says they wake up most nights, go to the bathroom, and fall back to sleep quickly, and feel great the following day, I'll bet their sleep quality is very good. On the other hand, if someone says they fall asleep quickly and sleep a sound 10 hours, it's meaningless if the individual says they continually nod off at stop lights.”
Which means all the groaning may be unnecessary if you’re able to get up and go. In fact, sleeping under eight hours might not actually be a problem because there are so many other components to defining good sleep.
Is there one definition for good sleep?
Most sleep specialists and researchers agree that sleep quality doesn’t have a set definition — which also means you can — and to a degree should — define your own metrics. This is especially true if you live with a health condition that inhibits or disrupts sleep, like pain.
“Sleep, like nutrition and exercise, is so multifaceted,” says Winter. Sleep duration, consistency, timing, and flow all matters when it comes to defining good sleep. “It is very easy to have one but lack several others. In other words, even if a child sleeps an ample amount of time or falls asleep quickly, this is not enough to definitively determine that their sleep is good or healthy.”
Feeling restored and energetic after you wake is usually a good sign, but how much energy you have throughout the day matters too.
“How you feel during the day [is the most common metric people forget is a part of good sleep,” says Winter. “I know I had good sleep when I feel rested and fully attentive to my patients during the day; I'm easy to be around and not irritable; I'm not seeing a second latte to "power through my day" — and I have plenty of energy in the afternoon for my daily run with my dog.”
Ask yourself if you felt like you had enough energy to meet your own needs, which could include exercising, socializing, emotional regulation, and more. And sometimes there are things we just have to do, so don’t forget to factor in the energy it takes for work schedules, family time, routines, and health needs as well.
How to measure good sleep quality at home
Clinical psychologist Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., a fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says what counts as good sleep comes down to much more than hours logged or how long it takes to fall asleep.
“Lots of people think that they should fall asleep quickly,” Breus says. “But falling asleep super-fast is a sign that they are sleep-deprived.”
And as Winter mentioned, there are many multiple components to good sleep. Knowing what sleep metric, you want to improve will also guide which sleep tips you should follow.
To build your own metrics at home, look at different components sleep professionals gauge sleep quality.
If you wear a fitness tracker, there may be some sleep functions built in, which can help you track measurements and set a baseline. If not, try keeping a sleep diary to store your data.
And remember: They are a guideline, which means falling a little out of range is OK.
Sleep satisfaction: How are you waking up?
Perhaps the best indicator of good sleep is how good you feel when you wake up. This energy should last throughout the day.
Keep in mind it’s normal to experience some grogginess as you rouse, which can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, even after a good night’s sleep. This state of feeling not yet awake is called sleep inertia.
Excessive sleep inertia, however, can be a symptom of poor sleep, says Dr. Aneesa M. Das, a sleep medicine specialist at Ohio State University. If you don’t feel energized after eating a meal or a morning exercise, try shifting your bedtime to see if sleeping earlier, or longer, helps with feelings of sleepiness.
Tip: Make it a goal to wake up at the same time every day. As you keep at it, you may notice other sleep habits falling into place, such as a normal bedtime, which can make waking up feel more natural.
Sleep latency: How long does it take you to fall asleep?
In professional tests, researchers measure sleep latency to see how long it takes for someone to go from awake to asleep. Solid sleepers tend to fall asleep in 12 to 18 minutes most nights, Breus says. Research also shows that this can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. As you past adolescence, it may take even longer to sleep, especially if you have health conditions.
While falling asleep immediately can be a sign of sleep deprivation, staring at the ceiling can indicate insomnia, Breus says. Generally, taking longer than 30 minutes to get to sleep is a sign of insomnia, according to the Insomnia Severity Index.
Also important with sleep latency is sleep timing, or your bedtime and waketime. Being able to set regular sleep and wake times each day will assist with sleep consistency and latency.
Tip: Relaxation-focused activities play a large role in getting you ready for sleep. Meditation is shown to increase melatonin concentration in individuals who practice it, compared to those who don’t.
Sleep efficiency: How much time are you spending in bed sleeping?
It’s said if you follow the golden rule of sleep hygiene, it’ll protect all your other sleep behaviors. The rule: Use your bed only for sleep and sex.
Sleep efficiency, the time you spend in bed actually asleep, is an important measurement for insomnia research. If you spend more time in bed trying to sleep than actually sleeping, you are likely not getting as much sleep as you think you are. Experts normally advise people to maintain the sleep schedule that keeps their sleep efficiency at 85 to 89%.
Tip: Activities in bed can also delay sleep latency, which is also why experts advise putting away devices an hour before bed.
Sleep architecture: Do you move through all your sleep stages?
Most sleep duration recommendations are meant to help you achieve moving through all the stages of your sleep architecture. However, according to Das, people with sleep disorders like sleep apnea often experience disruptions without knowing. When you experience a sleep disruptor that wakes you up, your sleep stage resets, and you end up losing out on the restorative and reparative benefits of sleep.
In this case, being proactive about addressing what’s causing your sleep disruptor will help improve your sleep quality more than just sleeping extra hours.
Tip: It can be hard to remember if your wake-ups are disrupting your sleep. Use a sleep tracking device, like watches, mobile apps, and under-the-bed sensors, to estimate how much time you spend in each stage of sleep; these trackers can also assist with gauging if your time in each stage is optimal.
Sleep duration: How much sleep are you getting?
Sleep duration is the research term for measuring how much sleep you should get in one sleep period within 24 hours. While the optimal amount of sleep varies by age, The National Sleep Foundation provides a general recommendation of 7 to 9 hours per night, with older adults needing 7 to 8.
However, researchers note that these are public health guidelines, and that a person’s ideal sleep duration depends on their genetics, environment, and behaviors, meaning there is variability to the right amount of sleep you will need to meet your needs — physical, mental, emotional, activity levels, etc.
Don’t fall into the trap of collecting sleep hours either. This disrupts your sleep consistency, and causes sleep debt, which takes exponential time to pay off. You want your day-to-day sleep duration to be as consistent as possible.
Tip: In your sleep diary, make note of routines and extracurricular activities for the week — everything including exercise, social events, professional work, and self-care. Track whether sleeping more or less affects your capacity to do them.
Use a quiz to score your sleep
Don’t know where to start with scoring your sleep? Consider the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), which is what professionals use in sleep studies to measure sleep effectiveness.
The PSQI measures various components of sleep, including:
- How much time you spend in bed each night
- How long it takes you to fall asleep after you go to bed
- How much sleep you actually get (not just time spent in bed)
- Whether you wake up during the night
- Whether you have difficulty returning to sleep after waking up during the night
Click here to calculate your P8SQI score. The PSQI includes a scoring key that calculates seven sub-scores, each of which ranges from 0 to 3. Those scores then add up to a “global” score ranging from 0 to 21. A score of 4 or less indicates the best sleep quality. Scores of 5 and up signal poor sleep, with quality worsening as scores increase.
Set a routine that works for you, using a sleep diary to track how behaviors impact your sleep. If you don’t see improvements from sticking with a routine for more than two weeks, then it may be time to try something new.
Other ways to improve sleep quality
Beyond what happens in bed, there are common lifestyle factors and health needs that can affect your sleep satisfaction, latency, efficiency, architecture, and duration.
Following these tips below may help get you closer to your ideal sleep quality:
- Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Sleep environments are important for sleep architecture and latency. If you sleep with devices in your room and still feel sluggish the next day, Das recommends avoiding exposure to all bright light late in the evening by keeping your devices in another room.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol or caffeine. Alcohol can cause wakeups at night while caffeine keeps you up, possibly throwing off your sleep schedule.
- Make time for stress relief, instead of waiting for it to build up. Stress can quickly deplete the energy reserves provided by a good night's sleep, but effective stress management can go a long way to helping you get better sleep, Breus says.
- Track changes in behavior, mood, or schedule. Instead of dismissing the impact health conditions, mental health disorders, life-changes, and jet lag can have on your sleep schedule, make time to resync.
- Be proactive about cancelling plans or engaging in self-care. Missing out on drinks or skipping the latest episode of your favorite show to prioritize sleep will be worth it.
When you get over the FOMO hump from cancelling your plans in favor of sleep, you’ll have a new baseline for your ideal sleep schedule, your favorite sleep hygiene habits, and what restoration really feels like. From there, it’ll be much easier to determine which sleep tips actually work for you.