At one point or another, we’ve all heard that when you can’t sleep, you should just stay still in bed. But, experts say that’s actually a terrible idea. If you are awake and restless 20 minutes after going to bed, you should get up.
“It’s counterintuitive, but spending time in bed awake turns the bed into the dentist’s chair,” said Michael Grandner, a clinical psychologist and sleep expert. He said you want your bed to feel like a favorite restaurant where you get hungry just by walking in, regardless of when you last ate. “You want the bed to do that for sleep.”
That doesn’t mean you should get up and throw a dance party. If you are awake after trying to fall asleep for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something tedious and relaxing. Some options are folding laundry, organizing the mail or a junk drawer or reading something low-key. You shouldn’t look at screens or electric devices as the light can walk you up more. Don’t stress out about not sleeping; fixating on your lack of sleep can make it harder to sleep and wind you up. If you struggle with stress and worries about tomorrow that keep you awake, make a to-do list. That can help you plan out your day and let you stop worrying about forgetting things.
“The problem with staying in bed for any appreciable amount of time is that this reinforces sleeplessness, physiologically and psychologically,” said Dr. Michael Perlis, director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the Univ. of Pennsylvania.
He suggested listening to quiet music, meditating or playing a repetitive game — like Sudoku. Just be sure the Sudoku is on paper and not a screen. He also recommended drinking only water. Late-night snacks and caffeine can keep you up. Alcohol might seem like a way to lull yourself into sleep, but that can lead to abuse and rebound insomnia where you wake up early in the morning.
Dr. Perlis recommends staying out of bed for at least 30 minutes or until you feel drowsy. He also points out that there is an exception to all of this advice: if you are on medication that makes you groggy or causes balance problems, you should stay in bed. For your safety and to avoid falls, it’s better to stay in bed and address your sleeplessness with your doctor in the morning. Trying to get up after taking medications like that could lead to a serious injury.