Whether you're returning from a trip abroad or had to work late a few nights in a row, there are many reasons why your sleep schedule can get thrown off. Once your routine is disrupted, it can feel difficult to get back on track, but a consistent bedtime and wake time is critical for maintaining healthy sleep. If you've recently developed an inconsistent sleep schedule, it is possible to correct it by following a few simple rituals throughout the day and before bed.
Related: What to Do When You Can't Fall Asleep, According to Experts
Having a regular sleep and wake cycle is one of the single-most important ways to ensure you're getting quality sleep. "Waking up at the same time every day acts as an anchor—a starting point," says Aaron Arkin, registered psychotherapist and sleep technologist and founder of the Evolution Sleep insomnia program. "That's the point where we build up our sleep drive in order to tire ourselves out to fall asleep at night. We need to be awake for a certain amount of time in order to fall asleep, and the more consistent our wake time makes this easier for us."
There are a handful of different factors that can disrupt your circadian rhythm. Common reasons include jet lag, shift work, daylight saving time, drinking caffeine late in the day, and using blue light-emitting devices before bed. "Still other factors, like having a sick child, or a spouse or partner who operates on a different sleep-wake pattern than you, can also throw your sleep schedule out of whack," says Wendy Troxel, PhD, a senior scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple's Guide to Better Sleep.
Sleep disorders are another common reason for an irregular sleep schedule. "People who suffer from insomnia often have erratic sleep schedules because they try to catch sleep whenever they can get it," says Troxel. "Unfortunately, this pattern of chasing sleep can actually exacerbate the sleep problem and create a vicious cycle of insomnia."
Generally, most adults need somewhere between seven to nine hours of sleep per night. "But healthy sleep isn't only about sleep duration—it's also about maximizing the quality, regularity, and timing of sleep," says Troxel. While there is no right time to go to bed and wake up (that is largely dictated by your individual lifestyle) human beings sleep best at night. "I suggest starting by establishing what your wake up time needs to be due to social obligations (work, school, or family schedules) then work backwards to determine when bedtime should be, allowing for roughly a seven to nine hour window for sleep opportunity," says Troxel.
If your sleep schedule has recently been disrupted or if you're still working to establish one, there are a few daily adjustments you can make to get your circadian rhythm on track.
Caffeine and alcohol can disrupt both your ability to fall asleep as well as your quality of sleep. "Caffeine leads to micro-arousals in our sleep—a short burst of electrical activity that interrupts our sleeping brain," says Arkin. "These micro-arousals are very brief and imperceptible, and can happen hundreds of times throughout the night and therefore reduce our total sleep time." Alcohol, which also causes micro-arousals, has a similar effect on sleep quality. "Further, alcohol acts as a relaxant for our muscles, which can lead to more snoring and sleep apnea at night," says Arkin.
Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is ideal, but it's not always feasible. There's no need to stress if one night of the week you go to bed later than usual. "What is more important is to remain consistent with our wake time, and allow an occasional sleep-in of no more than an hour," says Arkin. Maintaining a regular wake time will help you build up your sleep drive, so you feel tired enough to fall asleep at your regular time the next night.
Although naps seem like they help you catch up on sleep, this isn't actually the case. "Naps are best to be avoided for people who suffer from insomnia, as one of the most effective treatments for insomnia involves harnessing the drive for sleep so it is especially strong at bedtime," says Troxel. Even if you don't suffer from insomnia, you should still try to avoid naps. "A nap reduces our body's sleep drive, which makes it harder to fall asleep at a consistent time," says Arkin.
A wind-down routine at night and a wind-up routine in the morning are great ways to reinforce a healthy sleep schedule. "The key is to set up a routine that will signal to your brain that it is time to settle and unwind," says Troxel. "A wind-up routine is also essential, as many people are simply not morning people. Having an automatic set of behaviors can make those mornings less painful."
A wind-down routine can include anything you find relaxing, like taking a bath, stretching, or reading. On the other hand, a wind-up routine should include anything that makes you feel more alert, like splashing your face with cold water or turning on your overhead lights.
Avoid using electronics before bed, be it scrolling on your phone or reading a book on your tablet. "Cutting down on screen time can benefit sleep by reducing exposure to blue light, which can suppress melatonin and delay sleep onset," says Troxel. In addition to the effects of blue light, the content you view on these devices can stimulate your emotions and cause you to have ruminating thoughts before bedtime.
Physical activity can help our sleep schedule in two ways. "First, physical activity leads to an increase in deep, refreshing, slow wave sleep—this type of sleep has been shown to be important for muscle and tissue regeneration following exercise," says Arkin. "Second, scheduling early morning exercise can be a great incentive to getting out of bed early and a great way to start your day."