How to Create an Effective Sleep Routine with Dr. Steve Orma

Molner and I made it to week 2 of the Sleep30 Challenge by Sleep Number, and he’s just barely beating me with a sleep score of 70 to my 62. You should join us! This coming week is all about creating an effective sleep routine, so read my conversation below with sleep psychologist Dr. Steve Orma to learn how you can get a better night’s rest…

Katie Couric: We often hear that we should have a routine before bed, but what does it actually do to improve our sleep?

Dr. Steve Orma: Whatever you do consistently close to your bedtime gets associated with your sleep. When you establish a nightly bedtime routine, after a few weeks of doing it, your mind and body start to associate this routine with sleep and you will actually begin falling asleep as you perform your routine, even before getting into bed.

This improves your sleep because it makes it easier to get into sleep mode and fall asleep once you’re in bed. When your body thinks you’re getting ready to go to bed, it starts to change your physiology to get you ready for sleep. Many people have trouble falling asleep, and a nightly routine is one effective and easy thing you can do to make this easier.

What are your best tips for what to do and what not to do as we all start to develop our nightly sleep routines?

What to do: Start your nighttime routine about an hour before going to sleep. Tasks can include brushing your teeth, putting on bedtime clothes, reading or listening to something relaxing or non-stimulating, meditating, deep breathing or other relaxation exercises. Keep your routine consistent, even while traveling, if possible.

What not to do: Avoid electronic gadgets (computer, tablet, smartphone), vigorous physical activity, job-related work, a big meal, and serious discussions with your partner. Reading is great, but no horror novels or exciting thrillers, as these will stimulate you and wake you up. A hot shower or bath can be a relaxing thing to do in the evening, but don’t do it less than 2 hours before going to sleep, as it raises your body temperature and can interfere with sleep.

Okay, got it…but what do you suggest when our schedules get interrupted? I recently returned from a two-week trip to Asia and my body clock is all turned around…how can I do a reset?

If possible, maintain your sleep routine when you travel. Most of the things that go into a sleep routine are things you need to do anyway (brush your teeth, put on sleep-clothes, wind down, etc.), so it’s best to just make it a regular part of your life, even when traveling. If for some reason you can’t maintain it when you travel, as soon as you get home, get right back into your sleep routine. If you’ve been doing it consistently, it should be easy to get back on track.

If you’re jet lagged, get back to your regular sleep times as soon as possible. The best way to do this is to resume your regular wake-up time as soon as you get back, even if you’re exhausted in the morning and have the ability to sleep in. This might be challenging for a couple days, but it will get your normal sleep pattern back more quickly. Also, get outside during the day and get sunlight, which also helps your body get back to its normal rhythm.

What are the biggest mistakes that people tend to make when trying to improve their sleeping habits?

The biggest mistake is practicing the wrong habits. These are things that seem helpful, and may be in the short-term, but that actually don’t improve sleep or can make it worse. A few of these common habits are:

Going to bed earlier – This one seems to make sense. Get in bed earlier, get more sleep. But if you get into bed before your body is ready for sleep, then you will lie there awake. This can lead to tossing and turning or frustration, which makes it harder to sleep. If done consistently, it can worsen your sleep, because your body starts to associate sleeplessness with the bed. Instead, only get into bed when you are sleepy.

Taking naps during the day – Some people can do this and sleep fine at night. But for many people, it can make it harder to sleep. If the reason you’re napping is because you’re not sleeping well at night, then work on improving your nightly sleep first. Once you have a strong sleep pattern at night, then you can experiment with napping in the day and see how it affects your sleep.

One exception to this is new parents. When you have a new baby, there’s a good chance your nightly sleep will get messed up because the baby will be waking up throughout the night. In this case, napping is okay and even recommended if it’s the only way to get sleep. As soon as the baby’s sleeping through the night, stop napping until your nightly sleep is back on track.

That’s great advice and it brings me to my next question that so often comes with having kids… what is the best way to manage a routine when we don’t know exactly when we’ll be able to sleep?

Remember that getting good sleep isn’t optional, but a requirement for health and well being. It’s as important as food and water, and even more important than exercise. So, the first thing is to make getting enough sleep a priority. That means carving out that time in your schedule and protecting it. It should include at least an hour to wind down before bed.

I know it’s challenging when work and home life are demanding, but it’s up to you to make sleep a non-negotiable. That might mean cutting out or cutting down other activities that aren’t as important.

Create boundaries between your work and personal life. Carve out time in the evening for rest, time with family, winding down, and getting to bed at a decent hour. Turn off your phone and computer during this time and put them in a place not easy to get to. Doing these things will make your life more enjoyable, reduce stress, and allow you to rejuvenate. It will also make you sharper, more productive and happier in your work and parenting because you’re letting your mind and body recover.

As I mentioned earlier, getting good sleep is difficult to impossible if you have a newborn. In this case, try to stick with your routine as much as possible, but be flexible about when you get sleep. Working a schedule out with your spouse can help, like alternating who gets the night shift so the other can sleep. Getting away for a couple days to rest and recover is also extremely helpful if you have someone you trust to take care of your baby.

Any last bit of advice to keep us all from tossing and turning?

Start framing sleep as something very pleasant, like a great reward you get at the end of the day. Look forward to sleep. You don’t have to think, or work, or do anything when you sleep. You get 7-8 hours of pure rest where you don’t have to do anything.

As I wrote in my sleep book: “We spend a third of our lives sleeping. That’s nearly 26 years! But while most of us try to make our waking lives as fulfilling as possible, few of us give thought to making our sleeping lives as enjoyable. Rather than viewing sleep as the positive, rejuvenating, pleasurable activity that it should be, sleep is usually perceived as a mundane maintenance activity.”

Instead, make sleep an enjoyable experience. Invest in a comfortable bed, pillow and sheets. Make your bedroom an oasis. The investment is worth it and will pay itself back many times over.