How to Avoid Four Common Sleep Problems

Get your full eight hours with these tips from sleep expert Kiran Maski.

With the clocks springing forward an hour this weekend, losing precious sleep is likely on your mind. But Daylight Savings Time shouldn’t be the only time you think about sleep—getting a solid eight hours is good for everything from your skin to your dietary choices, so it should be a priority 365 days a year.

We spoke with Dr. Kiran Maski, a sleep specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital and a board member at Wake Up Narcolepsy, about her best sleep tips for four common scenarios.

Trouble falling asleep:

1. Avoid light exposure. Melatonin, a hormone that helps us fall asleep, begins to build up as it gets dark, usually around 8 p.m. Extended light exposure, however, may impede its production.

“People who are on their phones, or on their computer, or watching television, or at the gym…can have a delay in that natural production of melatonin, which makes it very difficult to fall asleep,” Maski explains. Shut off your phone and computer at least half an hour before you go to sleep, and use a blue light blocker if you read on your phone or tablet before bed.

2. Go the gym in the morning. Maski says daily exercise can help encourage sleep, but it’s most beneficial if done in the morning. “Because exercise is more alerting, we generally recommend that people adhere to a schedule of morning exercise if possible, because it helps with the daytime alertness and doesn’t affect people’s ability to fall asleep,” she says. Light exposure from evening gym visits may also disrupt sleep, she says.

3. Cut out afternoon caffeine. Caffeine stays in the body for eight hours after it’s consumed, so Maski says most people should stop drinking it by noon. One caveat: Caffeine’s effects vary widely from person to person, so some people may be able to guzzle coffee all day with no problem.

4. Fine-tune your sleeping environment. Maski suggests sticking to the same bedtime routine each night, including sleep and waking times. She says keeping the room between 60 and 67 degrees, using black-out curtains, and finding a comfy mattress and pillows may also help.

Waking up during the night, or too early in the morning:

1. Just relax. If you wake up during the night, follow the above tips, namely doing something soothing in dim light. “Try to do something relaxing, preferably out of bed,” Maski says. “The longer you stay in bed and try to fall back asleep, it can get more difficult and people worry about why they’re not sleeping.”

2. Don’t sleep in the next day. It’s tempting to compensate for lost sleep with long naps or later wake-up times, but Maski says doing so may perpetuate your sleeplessness at night. And don’t try making up for lost shut-eye on the weekend. “There’s no such thing as a sleep bank,” Maski says. “You can’t catch it up on the weekends and store it for the week days.”

3. Consider seeing a doctor. “If it’s a chronic issue, that may be a sign of insomnia,” Maski says. “There’s other conditions that can sometimes impact your sleep quality, such as obstructive sleep apnea.” See your doctor if you think this may be you.

Sleepiness during the day:

1. Take a (short) nap: If you can sneak away from your desk, Maski says it’s likely harmless to take a 30-minute-or-shorter nap in the early afternoon. Any longer and you risk sabotaging that night’s sleep.

2. Again, consider seeing a doctor. Narcolepsy, a “chronic neurologic sleep disorder that’s defined by excessive daily sleepiness,” is more common than many people realize, Maski says. If you’re regularly excessively tired during the day, talk to your physician.

A partner who snores:

1. White noise. Unfortunately, Maski says there’s not much you can do about a bed partner who snores. Her best recommendation is drowning them out with a white noise machine, or having them evaluated for sleep apnea or another condition.