When You Can't Fall Asleep

Every sleep coach and sleep professional has a different view, and it’s interesting to me that we can all agree on so many things, like blue light and circadian rhythm, while also disagreeing on this one thing...

Should you get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep?

I talk about what you should do when you can’t fall asleep in the “While You’re Supposed to be Sleeping” section in my book, The Calm & Cozy Book of Sleep...

If you’re going to bed and lying there awake for quite a while, perhaps you’re going to bed too early. It should take you about ten to fifteen minutes to fall asleep. If it’s taking longer, try moving your bedtime a half-hour later.

You should be going to bed feeling tired, but the goal is to be tired, not exhausted. Falling asleep within seconds of your head hitting the pillow sounds like an incredible skill to have, especially if you can fall asleep anywhere, but it could be a sign of sleep deprivation (unless that’s typical for you). If it takes you fewer than ten to fifteen minutes to fall asleep, you might want to try going to bed earlier.

If you’re regularly having problems falling asleep at night or falling back to sleep after an unexpected wake-up in the middle of the night, I don’t suggest getting out of bed to do something else. Sleep experts have differing opinions on this and I am probably going to start a debate, so hear me out before you swear under your breath and close the book. I have a few reasons for believing it’s best to stay in bed if you can’t fall asleep.

By leaving your bed, you’re telling yourself that sleep is the only goal of being there. You’re training your body and your brain to put all of your focus on sleep and to retreat if it doesn’t work right away. You are placing the expectation on yourself to fall asleep by a specific time, a mind-set that will most likely result in more anxiety. I want you to be comfortable with resting. I want you to spend time in bed without watching the clock or being hyperaware of how much time is passing.

If your reasons for getting up and doing something else are to make you feel tired, then you either weren’t tired enough the first time or your body and brain need to unwind first. The solutions are to move your bedtime later, so you feel tired enough to fall asleep, or to use a self-soothing technique to relax your mind.

Another reason I don’t want you to leave your bed is that only a tiny handful of activities won’t push sleep even further away than it already is. No doubt your home has many screens you can use to distract yourself and pass the time. Reaching for a bright, glowing, melatonin-blocking screen will hurt your chances of falling back to sleep. The news is full of upsetting stories and social media can get us riled up and emotional within seconds. Going for a little walk around the house can raise your stress levels if you notice a mess left in the living room or dirty dishes in the sink. It’s also possible that a family member or pet could hear you awake in the house and come to join you, adding to your list of loved ones you now have to tuck into bed for a second time, including yourself.

As someone who has struggled with racing thoughts at bedtime, I know that it only takes a moment of distraction to get your thoughts into a downward spiral, and by staying in bed and choosing to rest, you are eliminating those possible distractions. Rest is the beautiful in-between you can turn to when sleep isn’t happening—and unlike sleep, it’s always there when you need it.

(Beth Wyatt, The Calm & Cozy Book of Sleep)

So let’s follow this up with some practical application. If you’re open to staying in bed and focusing on rest, what would that look like?

When you’re in bed, prepare for sleep. Be still. Close your eyes. Focus on your breath, and rest.

Tell yourself calming things, like, "Being in my bed feels so good." Or "I am so cozy." Or "I’m going to sleep so well tonight." It sounds cheesy, I know, but try it! It’s certainly better than saying things like “This isn’t going to work!” or “Here we go again!”

Keep it positive.

Another thing to try when you can’t fall asleep is focusing on your breath. When a thought comes into your head, which it will, let it go without a reaction. Thoughts are not facts. You don’t have to entertain every thought your brain conjures up. Let it go and go back to your breath.

(For the full episode, listen to When You Can't Fall Asleep - Part 1)

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