Have you ever noticed that dogs seem to sense when it’s dinner time? They start to hover near the kitchen, somehow knowing that their dinner is coming. They pace back and forth, wagging their tales with anticipation.
Dogs can’t tell time, so how is this possible? And what can this teach us about sleep and the importance of having a bedtime routine?
Over time, your dog has learned to associate various cues with being fed. You get home from work, change into your pajamas, and head into the kitchen. You unload the dishwasher, turn the oven on, and rummage around in your pantry. You have a routine every day, filled with clues, before your feed your dog.
After lots of repetition, your dog starts to pick up on these cues. (For anyone that took a Psychology course in college, think about Pavlov and his dogs.)
We humans are the same way. Our bodies and brains are trainable. They pick up on various cues and patterns, learning as they go along. When you adopt a bedtime routine, you’re teaching and training your brain to prepare for sleep.
If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, one of the most important things you can do is to develop a bedtime routine. A helpful bedtime routine involves a sequence of steps, repeated every single night just before sleep. Each step in your routine acts as a signal to your brain to wind down and prepare for sleep.
Your brain likely already associates climbing into bed with falling asleep. This act serves as a cue, much like rummaging around in your pantry for dog food. But if you can draw this process out, creating a string of cues, your body can start to prepare for sleep even earlier.
If you don’t yet have a consistent bedtime routine, I strongly encourage you to develop and start practicing one today. Here are a few sample bedtime routines to get you thinking:
Do a quick five minute sweep of your living space or kitchen. Load the dishwasher, and fold any blankets left out on the couch. Take your vitamins, turn out the lights, and brush your teeth, before finally climbing into bed.
Click off the TV. Pack your lunch for tomorrow. Wash your face, and listen to a guided meditation.
Close down your house, turning off lights and electronics. Take your vitamins, prep your coffee machine for tomorrow. Brush your teeth, and read for 10-15 minutes before eventually turning out the light.
In each of these examples, you’ll notice a string of activities that make up the bedtime routine. Avoid bright lights and stressful or stimulating activities during this routine, and do your best to keep the bedtime routine the same each night. Be flexible if needed, but challenge yourself to be as consistent as possible.
Over time, you brain will learn that these activities, strung together, mean bedtime is coming, and your body will start to wind down and prepare for sleep, helping you fall asleep faster and with greater ease.
So do you have a bedtime routine? If so, what is it, and if not, what ideas do you have about what you can do just prior to bedtime?
PS: Does poor sleep make your mornings more stressful? Learn five simple ways to make your mornings less hectic.