Controlling Stimuli: Five Daytime Habits to Improve Nighttime Sleep

For most people, sleep occurs during the night. However, it's important to recognize that daytime activities can significantly impact sleep. For those who struggle with sleep, it’s not just about optimizing evening habits; it’s about making the most of daytime routines to harmonize the body's circadian rhythm.

Here are five things to consider when it comes to daytime routines and stimuli.

Exercise and Activity

Getting regular exercise during the day is crucial for a good night’s sleep. It doesn’t have to be formal or intense, and can even be something as simple as walking your dog. Any movement that can be integrated into the day is beneficial.

A study from 2001 reported that most Americans spend 93% of their time indoors, indicating that they are not getting the exercise they need. One 2010-2011 study showed that Canadian behaviour is similar in that regard. So, it’s important to find ways to get outdoors and keep moving throughout the day.

However, timing is key when it comes to exercise. Exercising too close to bedtime can disrupt the ability to fall asleep. As a general guideline, it is best to avoid vigorous exercise three hours before bedtime.

Meal Timing

Just as daylight exposure is crucial for regulating your circadian rhythm, so is the timing of meals. Aim to have meals during daylight hours. While this may present a challenge during the dark Canadian winters, it is beneficial to have dinner as close as practical to the time the sun sets. Additionally, ensuring meals are consumed at regular intervals during the day can further support a healthy sleep-wake cycle.

Consider Conversations

It is important to avoid difficult conversations before bedtime, especially those related to triggering topics, like finances. The best practice is to promote relaxation as bedtime approaches, rather than becoming anxious by discussing challenging topics. This simple habit can contribute to a more peaceful night’s sleep.

Napping Habits

What about napping? Most experts say that napping is okay as long as it does not negatively impact nighttime sleep. The best approach is to aim for a 20-minute nap around the same time every day. However, for some, napping, especially if it's longer than 20 minutes, can cause issues with nighttime sleep. This is because it reduces “sleep pressure,” which is the phenomenon that causes the body to feel ready to go to sleep. The pressure becomes stronger the longer we stay awake and decreases during sleep, reaching a low after a full night of good-quality sleep. 

The concept of sleep pressure ties back to sleep hygiene, emphasizing the importance of going to bed only when experiencing sleepiness. The key is to listen to your body and recognize your unique sleep requirements. While common recommendations often suggest “everyone should get 8 or 9 hours of sleep,” the reality is that sleep needs vary from person to person. The real range is 6-9 hours.

Understanding Sleep Needs 

Determining how much sleep you need is possible through various methods; one popular way is to keep a sleep diary. But here’s a universally applicable truth: Wake time is more critical than bedtime. Consistency is key - wake up at the same time every morning regardless of bedtime. For people struggling with insomnia, this consistency should extend to seven days a week. Those who typically sleep well can afford to sleep in a little on the weekends.

Whatever your sleep need is, get that amount most days OR LESS. Never go for more. Don’t go for more when trying to compensate for a bad night’s sleep (i.e. don’t get up later, go to bed earlier or nap during the day). We have an internal mechanism of sleep regulation that will right itself if we allow it.

When someone falls asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow, this is often a sign that they are not getting enough sleep. Generally speaking, it should take 10 to 15 minutes to fall asleep. Taking significantly less time or more time may indicate a need to evaluate and adjust sleep habits and environment.

As for waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to fall back asleep for 20 to 30 minutes, there are some strategies to consider. One option is to get out of bed and engage in a boring activity (i.e. read a painfully dense book). It is important to avoid doing anything that requires physical exertion, like household chores. Another approach is to switch sleeping locations, so move from the bed to a guest room or the couch. Sometimes simply changing position in bed, such as moving your head to where your feet are, can also be helpful.

For anyone looking to improve their sleep quality, there are a few things to consider when it comes to daytime routines:

  1. Daily exercise and activity
  2. Meal timing
  3. Keep any triggering conversations for the daytime
  4. Napping habits
  5. Individual sleep needs

Optimizing sleep isn't just about evening habits, but extends to daytime routines as well. By taking a holistic approach that takes into account both day and night, it’s possible to work towards a more restful night's sleep. 

Michael Kahn
Michael Kahn, M.Ed.,JD joined LAPBC in 2019.