What does sleep hygiene mean?
- Sleep hygiene refers to the habits you practice that may influence how well you sleep.
- It’s not about having perfect sleep hygiene – it only needs to be OK.
- Sleep hygiene is part of an overall plan for sleeping well, but it’s not the only strategy.
When you hear the term, ‘sleep hygiene’ you might think it refers to how clean your sheets are. While they feel wonderful, clean sheets only play a minor role in sleep hygiene.
To find out more, we asked sleep specialist Dr David Cunnington for some sleep hygiene education. Dr David explains what sleep hygiene means and how important it is to helping you get a good night’s sleep.
Understanding sleep hygiene
Essentially, sleep hygiene refers to the habits you practice that may influence how well you sleep. For example, you might enjoy a late afternoon latte, but later you find yourself staring at the ceiling waiting on sleep to arrive. You then wonder why you feel so tired all the time. This isn’t good sleep hygiene practice.
But, going to sleep at a regular time and getting up at the same time each day are examples of better sleep hygiene practices.
In terms of specific age-related sleep hygiene practices, Dr David says that while the principles are the same, the habits that negatively impact on sleep will be different.
“A 20 year old might be exercising too late or drinking energy drinks, while a 60 year old might be going to be too early,” explains Dr David.
When it comes to sleep hygiene for toddlers and young children, research indicates that consistent sleep schedules and specific pre-bedtime routines are critical to good sleep hygiene.
What is the Sleep Hygiene Index (SHI)?
Researchers use the Sleep Hygiene Index (SHI) to assess study participants’ sleep hygiene practices. It’s a self-reported measure developed in 2006 that asks people to indicate how frequently they engage in specific sleep hygiene-related behaviours such as:
- daytime napping
- caffeine, tobacco and alcohol intake
- using their bed for anything other than sleep or sex
- how stressed they are before bed
- how comfortable their bed and bedrooms are
- whether they exercise close to bedtime
- if they often do activities that stimulate the brain close to bedtime
Dr David says that the sleep hygiene index may be a useful tool to help identify if sleep hygiene is an issue and needs to be addressed. But it should not be the only focus in improving sleep.
“People need to be careful about trying too hard to get a perfect sleep hygiene score. We need sleep hygiene to be OK, not perfect. Once sleep hygiene is OK, we then need to focus on other things that may be impacting sleep,” says Dr David.
Sleep hygiene tips
As we heard from Dr David, sleep hygiene scores don’t have to be perfect. But here are 3 ways you could get your score to be OK and, hopefully, sleep better:
1. Avoid screen-time 1-2 hours before bed
As well as the blue light from screens affecting sleep, screen-time activities like social media may be too stimulating right before bed.
2. Eat dinner at least two hours before bed
It may be more challenging to sleep well on a full stomach.
3. Only use the bedroom for sleep and sex
If you use your bedroom for doing work, study or as a substitute living room, your mind won't associate it with sleep. This could make it harder to get a good night’s sleep.
Looking beyond sleep hygiene
We know why sleep is important. It helps to maintain our physical and mental health. But how important is sleep hygiene?
Dr David says that while sleep hygiene measures may be helpful, they’re only part of what people need to do to help improve their sleep.
“For example, managing stress levels and how busy we are across the day is key to good sleep, but sleep hygiene doesn’t address this,” explains Dr David.
That’s not to say that people should ignore sleep hygiene. As Dr David says, it should be part of an overall plan to help manage sleep but not the only strategy to getting a good sleep.
One strategy that Dr David recommends is building some guilt-free rest and restoration into your day.
“Doing that means there’s less riding on your night-time sleep. It stops you having just one shot at putting energy back in the tank,” he says.
Being OK with healthy sleep habits
Sleep hygiene is all about having healthy habits for better sleep. But it isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to sleeping well.
As Dr David explains, sleep hygiene needs to be OK, not perfect. It’s only part of the plan to enjoying a good sleep.
Learn more about how to sleep well in our other articles. And remember, if you have any questions or concerns about your sleeping habits, be sure to speak to your medical practitioner.
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- Sleep for women: how to get better rest and improve your health
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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 the healthylife Advisory Board September 2021.