How to Stay Asleep at Night: No Clocks, No Pets and No Netflix

Getting a good night’s sleep has always been challenging for many of us, but two years of pandemic-related habits are making things worse.

Many people are sleeping poorly during the pandemic, struggling to fall asleep and waking up more often. There are steps we can take during the day to prime us for better nights—like moving more, limiting caffeine and reducing stress—but they don’t always ensure a restful sleep. What you do at night matters too.

Here are the best ways to tackle nighttime sleep problems, even when pandemic disruptions conspire against a peaceful rest.

Take your pre-sleep routine seriously

The lines between work time and down time, and day and night activities, have blurred for many of us. Some of us who are working from home are staying in athleisure (so basically PJs) all day. In order to define that it is time for bed, a pre-sleep routine is all the more important now, sleep experts say.

Identify three to five actions—perhaps including brushing your teeth, reading your kids a book, changing into actual pajamas—that end with you in bed ready for sleep, says Emerson M. Wickwire, professor of psychiatry and medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Follow those steps each evening in the same sequence. This will train your body and brain that sleep is near.”

Avoid screens, especially now

Between Zoom calls and the dizzying pace of pandemic news, many of us have spent a lot more time on our phones and computers than we did pre-Covid. Sleep experts generally recommend avoiding screens—with their melatonin-suppressing blue light—for about one hour before bed. Your phone or laptop’s night mode, which cuts down on the blue light emitted, may be less disruptive to sleep, but no screens is still better, says Fariha Abbasi-Feinberg, medical director of sleep medicine at Millennium Physician Group in Fort Myers, Fla.

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One sleep-promoting activity is a pre-bedtime warm shower or bath, says Daniel J. Buysse, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We sleep best when our body temperature is low, he says. While our body heats up during the warm bath or shower, when we’re done body temperature falls quickly and steeply, which can help us fall asleep more easily, Dr. Buysse says.

Keep to a regular bedtime as much as you can, but only get into bed when you’re ready to fall asleep, says Dr. Wickwire. “Do not practice having insomnia.”

Your bedroom office situation isn’t helping

During the pandemic, many bedrooms have been forced to do double duty as offices and gyms, too. This isn’t good for sleep because the body and brain learn to associate spaces with particular activities. And when you’re going to bed, you don’t want your body to think it might be headed to a Zoom meeting with your boss or a Zumba class.

Create some visual separation—perhaps with a partition—between the active zones and the sleep zone, says

Jennifer L. Martin,

a professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If you don’t have that clear line between day and night, your brain enters the space not knowing what to expect,” she says.

Doctors say sleep is easier in a bedroom that is cool, dark and quiet. So order those blackout shades and the white noise machine.

If you have a restless co-sleeper, not only does Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg suggest investing in as big a bed as possible, she also recommends separate top sheets and covers. That way, your partner can “roll themselves into their sheets, not yours,” leaving you relatively undisturbed. Also your cute pandemic puppy shouldn’t sleep in bed with you, says Dr. Martin. A few studies have found that people who share a bed with their dogs move more, indicating more wake ups. Instead, consider a dog bed or crate in the bedroom, she says.

Don’t look at the clock

If you do wake up in the middle of the night, don’t look at the time. Looking can make you “start worrying, ‘I only have three more hours of sleep,’” says Dr. Wickwire. “This just activates our brain.”

Instead, wait a few minutes to see if you fall back asleep, says Dr. Martin. But as soon as you find yourself becoming anxious or frustrated that you aren’t getting back to sleep, get out of bed, says M. Safwan Badr, professor and chair of the department of internal medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. Resist the urge to do work, pay bills or clean the house, Dr. Badr says, since that kind of activity tells the brain that it is time to be awake. Don’t be productive, just keep the lights low and read a physical book or listen to soft music. Dr. Martin warns people against eating in the middle of the night since it can create a pattern and lead people to start becoming hungry in the wee hours.

Once you feel sleepy again, head back to bed. “The key word here is not to be in bed awake and struggling,” Dr. Badr says.

Try a two-week test

Everyone has an occasional bad night. But If you’re regularly having difficulty falling asleep at bedtime, Dr. Wickwire suggests a two-week test where you eliminate all activity from bed “cold turkey”—aside from sleep and sex. That means no Netflix. And no reading. He says patients often notice an improvement in their sleep.

And if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep more than three times a week for more than three months, that can be a clinical problem needing treatment, notes Dr. Martin. Then it’s time to schedule a visit with your doctor or a sleep medicine specialist.

Write to Andrea Petersen at [email protected]

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