Before electricity enabled light (and electricity-powered devices) to keep us up at night, people rose at dawn and wound down at dusk. Nowadays, we click on TVs and phones and flick on lights well after the sun sets, leaving us little natural juxtaposition time between day and night. That time is essential for naturally slowing down to prepare for sleep, since our bodies can’t just power off with the push of a button.
The most successful sleep involves transition time from the stimulation of the day to readiness for sleep.
We are creatures of habit, relying on practices or tendencies performed on a daily basis. And if you have ever tried to build (or break) a habit, you’ll know that even the smallest changes we make in our behaviors can have a huge impact over time. Which is why creating a nightly routine — a set of ritualistic activities you do every night in the time leading up to bed — can smooth the transition from wake to rest and set you up for deeper, healthy sleep.
What is a bedtime routine?
A nighttime routine or bedtime routine consists of a set of activities you do every evening an hour or two before going to bed. Though they’re associated with babies and young kids, a set night routine will benefit you at any age.
“In the same way that nightly rituals are calming for infants and children — whether it’s singing a song, reading a story, or brushing their teeth to get ready for lights out — a set of activities as a prelude to bed signals our adult brains that it will soon be bedtime,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., behavioral sleep medicine specialist and author of “Hello Sleep: The Science and Art of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications.”
A nightly routine can vary depending on your preference but should include activities that you find relaxing and enjoyable, such as reading a book, meditating, listening to music, doing some yoga stretches, or taking a warm bath. The key is that it does not include an edge-of-your-couch season finale on Netflix or doomscrolling your social media feeds or the day’s news, at least not right before bedtime.
“When constant stimulation and busy-ness linger well into the evening, our bodies get the message that there must still be danger on the horizon, otherwise why wouldn’t we rest when the sun is down?” says Wu.
“The overactivation of our sympathetic nervous system — a.k.a., the fight-or-flight response — keeps our bodies and minds revved up, overriding the circadian system’s message to the body that it’s time to slow down,” she explains. “So we end up with a double whammy: Our body clock is both confused and overstimulated. That makes it difficult to fall asleep or get good quality sleep.”
Why is a night routine important?
Paving the way for deeper and more restorative sleep requires adjusting our habits.
Many people have or are familiar with a morning routine, which can set you up for the rest of your day, increasing productivity, positivity, and feelings of being in control.
Retired four-star Navy admiral William H. McRaven even wrote a book about the mental health benefits of the morning ritual of making your bed. Titled “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life ... And Maybe the World,” the book proposes that making your bed in the morning sets you up for success (and more accomplishments) throughout the day.
It's a similar idea with nightly rituals, only those are about setting yourself up for a successful night’s sleep. “When you don’t give your body and mind a chance to let go of the day’s tension and stressors, you’ll stay too wired to peacefully drift into sleep. Establishing a nighttime routine allows your body the time it needs to gradually unwind. It’s essential to carve out that space in the evening, to create a bridge from wake to sleep,” says Wu.
Establishing a bedtime routine can also prevent you from lapsing into revenge bedtime procrastination — that phenomenon of putting off sleep while you pursue activities you enjoy that you couldn’t squeeze into your day. “Not to mention doomscrolling, or answering more emails,” adds Jenna Gress Smith, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with expertise in health psychology and behavioral sleep medicine. One study found that decreasing bedtime procrastination and boredom by establishing a meditation practice before bed led to better sleep quality. “So the choices and activities we make as part of our pre-bedtime wind-down can really have an impact on the quality of sleep we get.”
What is a good bedtime routine for adults?
Taking the time for calming activities that aren’t cognitively stimulating will help you slow down for the night and do wonders to relax your body and mind for sleep. “A solid bedtime routine should start at least 60 minutes before going to bed — and for some people, it may take up to 90 minutes to shift gears,” Gress Smith says. “It depends on how long your body needs to transition from ‘doing mode’ to ‘resting mode.’”
If you’re wondering how to establish a sleep routine, here are nine night routine ideas to choose from. Mix and match them however you’d like to create your perfect evening wind-down.
1. Dim the lights
No matter which relaxation activities you follow up with, dimming the lights should be the first signal to your brain that it’s time to slow down. While getting enough natural light during the day (especially in the morning) is important for keeping your circadian rhythm, or body clock, on a healthy sleep-wake cycle, light from lamps and electronics at night can mess that up by suppressing the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps us feel sleepy.
Think about dimming the lights at home and turning off your laptop and phone after you finish dinner, or at least an hour before bed. It’s harder in practice than it is in theory, we know. But not only is the blue light disruptive to sleep, shifting from action-oriented activity to more inward-focused, self-care pursuits is essential to achieving restful sleep.
2. Journal or write down tomorrow’s to-do list
For many people, it’s also really helpful to “put your day to rest before beginning your nightly wind-down and set yourself up for the following day,” says Gress Smith. “That could mean making a list of tomorrow’s to-dos, writing in a journal, or prepping lunch for yourself or your family. This encourages our brain to let go and start to settle down for rest.” As a bonus, this helps move your list out of your brain, so that it doesn’t occupy your thoughts as you try to relax.
3. Take a warm bath
More and more research suggests that a warm-to-hot shower or bath an hour or two before bed can help you fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality. Researchers theorize that the warm water stimulates blood flow to the hands and feet, allowing body heat to escape more quickly. That drops your core body temperature, which encourages deeper sleep. Not only that, a bath or shower gives you a sense of washing away the day and its worries for a more restful night.
4. Practice meditation or mindfulness
For many people slowing down a busy mind doesn’t come easily, which means neither does sleep. “A meditation practice can help quiet the brain by shifting your focus, often to the breath,” says Wu. Especially if you’re anxious about falling asleep, which can add to a pile of worry.
“Mindfulness allows you to become more aware of your thoughts and to let go of them, instead of getting stuck on them,” she says. “Strengthening your mind muscle through daily practice helps you better recognize the negative insomnia-inducing thoughts and let them pass.”
Studies have shown that mindfulness may be at least as effective as other highly recommended insomnia treatments for many people. “And even if a meditation doesn’t put you to sleep immediately, cultivating mindfulness in general will work behind the scenes to improve your sleep overall.”
5. Do some deep breathing
“Box breathing is one technique that uses the power of your breath, sending a signal to your brain to shift into relaxation or sleep mode,” says Gress Smith. “Box breathing is one of many types of breathing practices to try. For this technique, you start by breathing in for a count of 4, holding for 4 counts, and then slowly releasing and exhaling completely for 4 counts.”
6. Read a book
The thing that keeps many of us awake at night is stress, says Gress Smith. A study from the consultancy Mindlab International showed that reading a novel (not your social feeds) reduced stress levels by 68%, making it a more effective way to relax than even taking a walk. Reading fiction can transport you out of your own head and into a world of the author’s creation, interrupting anxious thought loops without any effort on your part, so you leave your own reality and worries behind (hopefully on page one).
According to a survey, bedtime bookworms not only slept better, they also made healthier choices and had a better outlook on life. Almost half the survey participants read a book before turning in at least once a week, for an average of 43 minutes, and said that reading before bed helped them relax and improved their sleep.
This might be why the book readers logged an hour and a half more sleep per week than non-readers did.
7. Create a bedtime playlist
Just as an upbeat song can pump you up to finish a workout, slower-paced music can soothe and relax you and help you drift off at night, as a lullaby does for a baby.
Research shows that music with around 60 beats per minute with no sudden changes in tempo or volume is most conducive to sleep.
“Studies on listening to slower-tempo music before bed have been gaining attention as a very effective tool to set yourself up for a successful night,” says Gress Smith. “One team of researchers has suggested (and they’re probably right!) that listening to calming music replaces behaviors that hinder our sleep, helping stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system response, which then lets the sleep system do its job. Music has even been found to be a better choice than audiobooks or other listening material.”
Though there is science behind the type of music that contributes to better sleep, music preferences are, of course, personal. In one survey analysis, Johann Sebastian Bach was the bedtime composer of choice, but he was closely followed by Ed Sheeran, Mozart, Brian Eno, Coldplay, and Chopin, proving that different sounds calm different people. Genres that study participants said helped their sleep ran the gamut from jazz, folk, and instrumental to house, meditation, and even movie soundtracks.
If you’re unsure where to start, some sleep specialists suggest listening to instrumental music so you’re not distracted by the lyrics.
8. Stretch or do yoga
“Our day-to-day lives are very mind-oriented,” says Stefani Eris, yoga instructor and teacher trainer. “We’re asked to be productive at every moment — thinking, strategizing, solving problems — which of course can lead to worrying and keep our nervous systems revved up. Then, when we’re ready for bed, we say to ourselves, ‘OK, now it’s time to sleep,’ but of course it’s hard to get there. Yoga can help us transition from day into night.”
“Stretching or doing some yoga poses is helpful for getting you out of your head and into your body and are especially helpful for people who tend to have racing minds at night,” says Wu.
Another type of bodywork to try is progressive muscle relaxation, a mind/body technique that involves tensing and then slowly releasing muscle groups from head to toe.
9. Connect/cuddle with your partner, a friend . . . or your pet!
We all need cuddles! Therapists say that the soothing, connected, loving touch of cuddling — that skin-to-skin contact — is one of the most important aspects of feeling good. When somebody touches you, your skin sends positive signals to your brain, which then releases oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that elevates your mood and helps prevent depression and anxiety.
When it comes to nighttime cuddles, don’t overlook a snuggle with your fur babies. A recent study found that more people (6 in 10!) would rather snuggle up with a pet than a partner! The reason? Two-thirds say their pet is usually a cleaner and quieter companion.
“A little cuddling can go a long way toward easing our minds from the hubbub of the day,” says Wu, “and that can relax our bodies in preparation for sleep.”