There are few things more frustrating than needing to sleep, but not being able to get enough shut-eye.
Maybe you can’t sleep as well as you’d like at night, or you avoid naps because you read that they’re bad for your sleep.
“We're all a bit sleep deprived,” sleep specialist Dr David Cunnington acknowledges. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Dr David has some advice on whether you can make yourself sleep, if naps are OK, and how to sleep better at night.
Our sleep reflects our lives
If you power through your day and tick off your huge to-do list like an unstoppable force, it’s not surprising that you might struggle to switch off at night.
“Sleep is a mirror of our waking lives,” Dr David says, “Often people come to see me as a sleep specialist and they’ll tell me about how busy they are, but they just can't switch off at night.”
That’s because we're humans, not robots that can suddenly turn off for eight hours.
Sleep is a biological process that’s driven by what's happening in our bodies and in our minds. “If you don't look after yourself during the day, your sleep will probably be lighter, shorter, and more disturbed,” advises Dr David.
Sleep is always changing
Sleep isn’t a constant throughout life. The long, deep sleeps we had during adolescence won’t (unfortunately) continue throughout adulthood and old age.
Dr David says that this is part of normal human ageing. The body processes change, and sleep is one of those. It will evolve across our life stages.
Thinking about sleep as a flexible thing can help to understand that it’s not always going to be the same. Your sleep could change from night to night – and that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be perfect. “Sleep will ebb and flow and be lighter and deeper, and there'll be wakening some nights and not others,” Dr David says.
Cats won’t be ordered around, and likewise, sleep can’t be forced to arrive.
How to sleep better
Here are Dr David’s tips for getting better sleep at night naturally with good sleeping habits.
1. Think of sleep like a cat
No, we don’t mean ‘sleep like a cat’. We mean “approach sleep like you would approach a cat”.
Dr David says, “People approach sleep like it’s a dog: ‘Come here! Do this! Sit! Lie down!’. Whereas people know you can’t do that with cats. They just come when they feel like it, in their own time and in their own way.”
Cats won’t be ordered around, and likewise, sleep can’t be forced to arrive. Just make the conditions right, and be ready for when it walks in, curls up and starts purring.
2. Look after yourself
You can’t ‘make’ yourself fall asleep, just like you can’t make other biological processes in your body start and stop.
“You can't manufacture sleep,” Dr David says, “You've got to create the opportunity where sleep may occur, and then trust that your body will take the sleep it needs within that space.”
If you’re looking after yourself physically and mentally, and you create space for sleep, your body will take what sleep it needs.
Napping also promotes a healthy way of thinking about sleep.
3. Take naps if you need them
You might have heard that you should never nap during the day because it can ruin your sleep cycle.
Dr David says that’s only true if you have acute insomnia. “Under almost any other circumstance, napping is a great opportunity to catch up,” he says.
Napping also promotes a healthy way of thinking about sleep: as a fluid, changing thing.
So if you’ve got the opportunity to sleep, and you’re feeling a bit tired, then sleep.
Don’t get too caught up in thinking sleep must happen only at a certain time and under certain conditions. And you don’t need a particular lamp or essential oil burner.
4. Wake up at the same time each day
Research shows that sticking to a consistent waking time helps our sleep. Our bodies are tuned into the environment, and light and movement signals to our body clock to start up for the day.
“Our body clock only needs that one synchronising signal for 24 hours. Then it organizes itself, and works out when to shut down and sleep,” Dr David says.
So, having that consistent waking time in the mornings is like an “anchor” for sleep, and everything else will follow.
Your body will tell you when it’s ready for sleep, so be ready to listen.
5. Go to bed when you’re tired
It sounds so obvious, but how often have you stayed up when you’re sleepy?
Your body will tell you when it’s ready for sleep, so be ready to listen. Follow your body’s cues and go to bed when your head and eyelids are heavy.
When you get the heavy head nod and heavy eyelids, that’s the time to go to bed.
“Don’t try to plan to go to sleep eight hours before you need to get up. That's aspirational behaviour around sleep, but that tends to be based on how we wish sleep would work, not how it actually works,’ advises Dr David.
Still can’t sleep?
If you’re struggling to sleep well at night, remember you don’t have to manage alone. There are sleep specialists available who can help – just see your GP for a referral.
- Sleep for women: how to get better rest and improve your health
- Why do I always feel so tired and what do I do about it?
- What is meditation and what are the benefits?
Dr David Cunnington is a specialist sleep physician who helps his clients to treat their complex sleep problems while also promoting sleep health through education, research and advocacy.
Reviewed by healthylife Advisory Board June 2021