Bedtime Routine: The Secret to Healthy Sleep and Good Days

A bedtime routine isn’t the luxury you might think it is. In fact, it’s necessary, and without one, you won’t get the healthy sleep you need for better days.
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Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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Man reading to his son in bed establishing bedtime routine

Perhaps you think bedtime routines are something meant for young children. Parents often create a sleep routine for their kids that may include taking a bath, brushing teeth, and reading a story to get ready for lights out. But these good sleep habits (i.e., wind-down habits) aren't just for kids.

As an adult, it's common to fill your day with activity right up to your bedtime. You may think skipping your wind-down routine now and then, or not having one at all, isn’t a big deal. Unfortunately, when you fail to wind down before bed, you’re making it that much harder for your mind and body to go to sleep, much less snooze through the night. Ahead, we explain why your bedtime routine is non-negotiable and how to correctly structure it to help you get the sleep you need.

Your Bedtime Routine Is a Necessity, Not a Luxury

Taking time to wind down and focusing on passive tasks that aren’t cognitively arousing will help unravel your mind and loosen up your body to become sufficiently relaxed for sleep. Picture it as a gradual process in which your body shifts from the “on” mode to “off,” courtesy of your body’s parasympathetic nervous system (it activates your relaxation response). This allows you to get the sleep you need and keep your sleep debt low (the amount of sleep you've owed your body over the past 14 days).

When you don’t give your mind and body a chance to release the day’s tension and stressors, your brain is likely still running at 100 miles per hour, and your body is too jittery for sleep. You’re experiencing what’s called the “tired but wired” syndrome. We’ve all been hung up on the next big project at work or automatically slide into the next episode on Netflix after a heart-pounding cliffhanger. But these are the culprits behind your sleep problems — i.e., difficulty falling asleep and waking up frequently in the middle of the night — making it nearly impossible to get the rest your body needs, even though your eyelids are drooping from fatigue.

And not getting the sleep your body needs will lead to immediate repercussions of sleep deprivation the next day. Your low energy levels will keep you from functioning and feeling your best. That’s why your bedtime routine — also called a wind-down routine (more on this later) — isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity for sufficient, healthy sleep to keep your daytime energy at optimum levels.

Your Bedtime Routine Is About More Than the Moments Right Before Bed

bedtime routine: Woman reading a book while sitting in bed

The ideal bedtime routine isn’t solely restricted to a small window of time before bed. To begin, you should be actively winding down for 1-2 hours before sleep. However, a correctly structured “bedtime routine” is also dependent on daytime behaviors that will later on decide whether you can fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night. What you do (and don’t do) during the day will ultimately inform how well you sleep at night — the sleep science community calls it good sleep hygiene, a series of sleep-promoting daytime and nighttime behaviors.

But knowing the do’s and don’ts during your wind down is only one-half of the equation to getting enough sleep. You also need to know when to do them. Your bedtime routine will only be effective in meeting your sleep need if it’s paired with your circadian rhythm (your body’s internal clock). Timing behaviors to your unique chronobiology will help you get the most out of your wind-down routine so you can enjoy healthy, naturalistic sleep.

Bedtime Routine vs. Wind-Down Routine — What's the Difference?

For all intents and purposes, your bedtime routine and wind-down routine both refer to the same thing: A key window of relaxation that takes place 1-2 hours before bed, coupled with what you do and don’t do throughout the day.

At Rise Science, though, we (and the sleep science community) prefer the term “wind-down routine” to “bedtime routine.” The former is a much more accurate description of what you are experiencing in the hours before sleep. Your wind down isn’t just healthy, slumber-promoting behavior. It’s also evocative of what needs to happen for naturalistic sleep — your body and mind need to slow down and be relaxed enough to enter dreamland. That’s why we refer to your bedtime routine as your “Wind-down” in the RISE app. Throughout this article, we’ll be using both terms interchangeably.

Building the Ideal Bedtime Routine With Good Sleep Hygiene

So, what specific winding-down behaviors should your bedtime ritual encompass? Also, what should you do (and not do) throughout the day and evening to set yourself up for a successful wind down, and henceforth, more restful sleep? Last but not least, when should you be doing all those things? Read on to find out the answers.

The Fundamentals: Prep the Perfect Sleep Environment

First up, you need to prep the perfect sleep environment that gives you the best chance of falling asleep easily and staying asleep till your wake time. Follow these three golden rules, and you’re set:

  • Keep it cool: Your core body temperature naturally drops during sleep. Simulate this biological change with a cool bedroom (roughly 65-68 degrees) to help you fall asleep more quickly.
  • Keep it dark: Artificial light (like a nightlight) tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime and suppresses your body’s natural melatonin production (a sleep-promoting hormone). Keep your bedroom dark to signal to your brain that it’s time to go to bed. Turn off all light sources and invest in blackout curtains (or blinds) and an eye mask.
  • Keep it quiet: Noisy surroundings prevent you from drifting off and incite frequent wake-ups during the night. For more restful sleep, wear earplugs and/or soundproof the windows, curtains, and carpets at home. If that's not possible, white noise can help mask disruptive sounds.

Pro tip: Use the “Check Your Environment” habit in the RISE app to prime your sleep environment every night. Go to the “Energy” tab in the app and add the habit to your “Energy Schedule.”

Structure Your Day and Evening To Get the Sleep You Need

bedtime routine: Woman stretching while looking out the window

By now, you understand that your bedtime routine isn’t just a nighttime routine; it encompasses your daytime activities and behaviors, too. Follow these steps for the ideal wind-down routine just before bed as well as good sleep hygiene from sunrise to sundown — or from when you wake up to when you go to bed.

Part I: During the Day

During the day, there is a handful of key behaviors that will make (almost) all the difference to your nighttime slumber in the best ways possible:

  • Step into the light the moment you wake up. Light exposure is the greatest circadian cue that restarts your circadian rhythm and regulates your sleep-wake cycle.
  • Consume caffeine in the morning, but limit its intake in the afternoon, as it can stay in your system for up to 10 hours. Use the “Limit Caffeine” habit in the RISE app to tell you when to stop drinking caffeine according to your unique biology.
  • Exercise in the morning to help you fall asleep faster that night and prolong the time you spend in deep sleep.
  • Take naps during your afternoon energy dip to catch up on sleep debt and to ensure you aren’t snoozing too close to your target bedtime and disrupting your sleep schedule.

Part II: From Evening On

Your evening routine consists of two crucial segments that will set the stage for sleep later on: the evening peak and the wind down.

Evening peak

This is the second (and last) energy peak of the day for you to finish strong. Here’s what you need to do and not do:

  • Perform your mentally challenging tasks for peak productivity.
  • Exercise to take advantage of your high body temperature — you may even best some personal records!
  • Avoid large evening meals with the “Avoid Late Meals” habit in the RISE app. If you have to eat, snack on a small meal that's below 600 calories.
  • Avoid sleep-barring substances like alcohol and nicotine. Use the “Avoid Late Alcohol” habit in RISE, which will tell you when to cut off alcoholic consumption based on your chronobiology.

Evening wind-down

This is the actual period that you should mentally and physically decelerate in preparation for slumber. There are three things to take note of:

  • Limit light exposure from electronic devices and artificial light sources: Wear blue-light blocking glasses and/or use dim lighting wherever possible. RISE has the “Block All Blue Light” habit to remind you to wear your glasses at least 1.5 hours before your bedtime. Go to the “Energy” tab in the app and add it to your “Energy Schedule.”
  • Lower your body temperature: Remember, a cooler temperature helps you enter dreamland with greater ease. A warm bath or shower dilates your blood vessels to promote rapid body heat loss once you step out of the bathroom.
  • Mentally unwind: Watch an old movie, read a book, or meditate to calm racing thoughts and relax tense muscles before bed. Choose shows with episodic programming (when a story is told within a single episode), so you’re less likely to binge-watch and miss your bedtime.

The “Evening Routine” habit in the RISE app lets you build the ideal wind-down routine specific to your evenings. Customize your favorite peak and wind-down activities, then add the habit to your “Energy Schedule” for timely in-app reminders closer to your bedtime.

Timing Is Everything

RiseApp Melatonin Window screen
The RISE app shows your daily Melatonin Window to help you go to bed at the right time.

Notice that throughout the steps for building the ideal bedtime routine, we didn’t mention specific timings for certain tasks. Instead, we delegate that to RISE, an app purpose-built to time your winding-down behaviors to your chronobiology.

For instance, the RISE app schedules your “Wind-down” just before your Melatonin Window on your “Energy Schedule.” The Melatonin Window is the window of time in which you’re producing peak melatonin levels to help you fall asleep more easily and stay asleep throughout the night. This biological change starts 2-3 hours before you sleep, a process scientifically known as dim light melatonin onset (DLMO). Knowing the exact start time of your daily Melatonin Window (which shifts slightly every night based on your recent sleep times) allows you to structure your day and evening for an effective wind-down routine.

Without the RISE app, it can be difficult to deduce the exact period in which your Melatonin Window occurs. Plus, you won’t know the exact duration of your personal sleep need, a genetically determined trait that dictates how much sleep your body needs every night. (RISE helps you work out your sleep need using sleep-science-based models and the past 365 nights of sleep data tracked by your phone.) 

As such, you’ll likely have to buffer in some time at your target wake and sleep times, then work backward from there to slot in the activities mentioned earlier for your bedtime routine.

If you're not using the RISE app, here’s how to determine when you should start winding down: 

  • Start with the amount of sleep you think you need, say, 7.5 hours, and add at least one hour of buffer time to account for sleep latency (how long you take to fall asleep at night) and sleep fragmentation (how often you wake up during the night).
  • Use your sleep need (plus the buffer time) to work backward from your target wake time, for example, 7:30 a.m. This means you should go to bed no later than 11 p.m. the night before.
  • From there, you should start winding down at least 1.5 hours before your bedtime, which works out to be 9:30 p.m. 

Of course, there will be hits and misses as you trial your new wind-down routine, especially since you’re working with a couple of unknowns, such as your sleep need and Melatonin Window. That said, some experimentation, and then consistency and patience will eventually help you achieve sufficient sleep at night for better energy during the day.

Prioritize Your Bedtime Routine for Good Sleep and Better Days

Your bedtime routine is so much more than a nightly routine that’s just another task on your to-do list. It’s actually one of the most important parts of your day because it sets you up to feel good and function well tomorrow. It’s also about more than winding down before you go to bed. Better sleep hygiene paired with your circadian rhythm is about everything you do from the time you open your eyes in the morning till the moment you shut them again.

But remember, it’s not just about what you do. Knowing when to do all these things is equally vital and, perhaps, the trickier part of an optimal bedtime routine. That’s where RISE can help by letting you know when to perform the specific tasks in your routine from morning till night. Get the RISE app today to set yourself up for a virtuous cycle of healthy sleep and better days.

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