Why the First Convo You Have With Your Roommate Should Be About Sleep

While you may be tempted to start off your conversation by bonding over shared music taste, talking through sleep schedules is even more important.

Three college aged girls hanging out and talking in a bunk bed style dorm room.
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Living with a new roommate in college can feel a bit like a body swap. Though you’re bunking up in close quarters, living alongside someone can mean changes to how tidy you keep your room, as well as the music you listen to, the way you decorate, and, of course, your habits around sleep.

And though many elements of sharing a room necessitate compromise, the quality of your sleep is not one of them.

If your new roommate stays up late or sets an alarm early, it could impact not just your sleep, but how well you are able to learn and participate in classes. After all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 33% of Americans are sleep deprived — and that’s not the future you want for yourself. It’s best to set some basic rules that benefit both of you as early as possible.

Here’s a road map to help you get started.

Talk about your boundaries and standards

The first building block of a mutually respectful roommate relationship is to talk openly about your sleep habits and preferences. “It’s a hard but important conversation to have,” says J. Roxanne Prichard, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in sleep at the University of St. Thomas. That way, when differences arise, you can find a solution together. As psychologists have found, open communication builds trust, which can foster problem-solving and collaboration.

Here are topics to cover:

  • Bedtime routineWhen it comes to winding down, each person has a different routine. Timing, noise levels, light levels, and activities can all factor into how you decompress and get ready for sleep. Whether you read, chat with long-distance friends, practice yoga nidra, or meditate, it’s nice to learn the other person’s habits and preferences. Plan to ask the basics, including: “At the end of the day, how do you like to wind down?” and “What is your bedtime routine?”
  • Morning routine: Not everyone is an early riser, especially in college, so ask about your roommate’s preference and share yours, too. Consider asking about when your roommate’s earliest classes start, and whether they hit snooze or jump out of bed.
  • Noise levelWhether you live in a dorm, residence hall, or other student-centric setup, noise is bound to be an issue. This may be particularly true if you’re sensitive to sound. To get a sense of where you both stand, start with: “Are you sensitive to noise, and if so, what bothers you?”
  • Sleep quirks: Many of us have sleep quirks. For instance, you may be a loud snorer, talk in your sleep, or make other noises. While disclosing your quirks may feel a tad embarrassing, address the topic in a light way by divulging your embarrassments, and asking: “Are there any silly sleep quirks that I should know about?”

After you’ve talked about your sleep habits, come up with a game plan.

This can involve:

  • Quiet hours: Prichard recommends coming up with “quiet and dark” hours that you and your roommate abide by. For instance, if your roomie hits the hay early, you might agree on a few activities that won’t disrupt their sleep, such as listening to music or a podcast with headphones on. When late-night study sessions or all-nighters pop up, you might agree to work in the library or study lounge. If you’re a morning person, you might head to a coffee shop or another early riser’s room so you don’t disturb your roomie.
  • Lights out: The blue light from your phone and other electronics can disrupt production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which can wreck your sleep. Therefore, be sure to set firm boundaries around “lights out” time, which means turning off all screens to protect your sleep.
  • Boundaries: If you or your roommate have sleep quirks, figure out a plan to deal with them, so that sleep talking, snoring, or other habits don’t become an issue. Earplugs can help, as can a plan for how to deal with middle-of-the-night issues. And if you’re a light sleeper but your roomie snores, earplugs could be your new BFF.

Follow the uncomfortable rule

Of course, you can’t predict every wrinkle beforehand, which is why Dr. Danielle Kelvas, a physician who specializes in sleep, recommends creating a “roommate agreement.” It paves the way to discuss your expectations about things like noise levels and sleep schedules, she shares.

In the book “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College,” author Harlan Cohen recommends following the “uncomfortable rule,” which means if something makes any roommate feel uneasy, that roommate must address the issue within 24 to 48 hours. Essentially, this ground rule gives each person permission to bring up thorny topics before they turn into bigger issues.

How to adjust to living with someone

If this is the first time you’re bunking up with someone, it’s bound to be an adjustment. That’s because sharing space requires all sorts of compromise. Therefore, communication is key, says Prichard. Two questions that can help break the ice: “How is sharing a room different from what you’re used to?” and “How can we support each other?”

Also, remember to extend yourself (and your roomie) a little TLC. It might feel bumpy at first, but that’s not a bad thing — it’s merely a sign of adjustment.

Remember that sharing space stretches your comfort zone in all sorts of ways. If you’re an introvert, having a roomie might feel a little draining at first. On the other hand, if you’re an extrovert, you might secretly want your roommate to become a close friend, in which case it’s important to discuss your expectations. Having discussions early on can prevent differences from becoming bigger problems, says Kelvas.

How to have the privacy talk

Before you invite your partner, Tinder date, or friends over, be sure to have a privacy talk with your roommate. The last thing you want is to be known as the “extracurricular roommate” (aka, the roommate with lots of overnight guests).

One tip: Do some preemptive planning, recommends Prichard. You might consider reviewing this checklist.

  • How often can you and your roommate have guests over?
  • Is it OK if a partner spends the night?
  • How might overnight guests affect your sleep?
  • Do you want guests to leave at a certain time?

When it comes to laying down ground rules, go over the details together, and don’t forget about the uncomfortable rule. In the end, talking about these issues might feel awkward at first, but being upfront will get your relationship off to a good start. Not only that, but coming up with a solid sleep plan will keep healthy habits from falling by the wayside.