How many hours of sleep do you need per night? To function? To feel rested? How often do you get that much sleep per night?
I need about 8 hours of sleep per night. I can function on as little as 4 hours, as long as they were uninterrupted. When I say function, I can keep my family and I alive and do basic tasks that don’t need much cognitive power. I will be cranky. I will make a lot of mistakes. It will just be a harder day. In short, I will pay for it. To feel rested, to function well, to be a decent human being, I need about 8 hours. I prioritize my sleep over getting everything done, so most nights I do get the sleep I need (unless my toddler decides otherwise). I think I’m the exception when it comes to prioritizing sleep over productivity.
At this point, we all should know that we need 7-9 hours. This is often an area where knowing better doesn’t always mean doing better. So why don’t we get enough sleep? Maybe we rationalize that while most people do need that much sleep, we just don’t need that much. First, only 1% of the population can be classified as “short sleepers,” needing less than a full night’s sleep each night. Second, maybe we have been rocking 5-6 hours a night for so long, that’s our “normal,” but we have no idea how much happier, more emotionally stable and productive we would be if we were getting 7-9 per night. Here’s a hint. If you depend on an alarm to wake up, if you hit the snooze button, if it’s kind of hard to get up and running in the morning, if you don’t feel like a human until you’ve had your coffee in the morning, you aren’t getting enough sleep.
Working with Soldiers, I noticed a slippery slope with caffeine and sleep. The less sleep you get, the more caffeine you need to get through the day. But the more caffeine you have during the day, the less sleep you’re likely to get. I would have soldiers line up across the room according to how much sleep they get per night (no sleep on one end, 10+ hours on the other). Then I would have them line up according to how much caffeine they have each day (no doses on one end, 6+ on the other). Soldiers that were in the middle on sleep tended to stay in the middle with caffeine. Soldiers that got very little sleep tended to move to the opposite end of the room for caffeine intake (indicating they have A LOT of caffeine each day). There’s a chicken or the egg conundrum here. Are they getting less sleep because they ingest more caffeine? Or are they ingesting more caffeine because they are getting less sleep? It’s hard to tell. Work and family demands compete to take more and more of their waking hours, encroaching on their sleep. This lack of sleep necessitates higher caffeine intake to stay alert and functional. This higher amount of caffeine takes longer to leave the system, interfering with our ability to get to sleep.
Why else don’t we get enough sleep? Because it’s hard! Given everything that’s on our plates between work, family, school, hobbies, self-care, etc., there’s just not much time left for sleep. It seems like the easiest thing to sacrifice when you need more time. Maybe staying up late is the only alone time you get in the day. As I said, I prioritize my sleep. It’s a choice I make. This choice means there are dirty dishes in my sink in the morning. This choice means I sometimes miss out on spending time with others.
So what are we supposed to do? We can’t make each day 28 hours. We can’t necessarily delete things from our days to allow more time for sleep. I’m not here to tell you that you need to find a way to get 8 hours a night (you should, but you know that already). I’d prefer you focus your effort on increasing the quality of the sleep you are getting. If you’re only going to get 5.5 hours a night, how do you get the most out of that 5.5 hours? 5.5 hours of good quality sleep is certainly better than 5.5 hours of crappy sleep, and probably better than 8 hours of crappy sleep.
First, however much sleep you are getting, do what you can to protect it (easier said than done with little ones). Make it sacred. Do what you can to establish a set bedtime every night, but more importantly, establish a bedtime routine. A bedtime routine is a simple set of steps that you always do to get ready for bed. Think of the sleep routines you build for toddlers to help them wind down from the day. We benefit from these as adults too. Maybe your routine is to brush your teeth, read a story, and go to bed. Maybe your routine includes listening to music, journaling or meditating. This means avoiding work and screen time. But be deliberate about what you do to prepare yourself to go to bed.
Second, increase the quality of sleep you get by practicing sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is a set of practices that promote good sleep to maximize daytime alertness. Some basic sleep hygiene practices include:
Keep your bedroom dark and cool
Avoid electronic devices and screens in the bedroom and around bedtime (yes, this means not watching TV or scrolling until you fall asleep)
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, exercise and heavy meals within a few hours of bedtime (some of these help us fall asleep but keep us from getting deep restorative sleep)
If you wake easily at night, utilize white noise or a fan
Now that you’ve optimized the sleep you are getting, start thinking about increasing the total amount of sleep you get every 24 hours. How can you shift things around to get an extra ½ hour of sleep? One way to get more sleep is to incorporate naps into your day. Naps can be more beneficial than caffeine for boosting energy and alertness. There are different recommendations on naps, based on what you need to boost.
To boost learning or alertness, take a 10-20-minute nap
To boost creativity, take a 20-30-minute nap
To boost memory and recall or decision making, take a 30-60-minute nap
To get a full cycle of sleep, boost procedural memory, take a 90-120-minute nap. This also avoids grogginess from waking up mid-sleep cycle.
How much sleep do you need a night to survive? How much sleep do you need a night to thrive? What’s one change you can make to get closer to thriving instead of just surviving?
Ramsey, L. (2015, December 15). People who can survive on 4 hours of sleep a night have these common characteristics. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/some-people-only-need-a-few-hours-of-sleep-2015-12
Reddy, S. (2013, September 03). The Perfect Nap: Sleeping Is a Mix of Art and Science. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-perfect-nap-sleeping-is-a-mix-of-art-and-science-1378155665
Rested Life. (n.d.). Sleep Hygiene Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://restedlife.com/resourceshttps://restedlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Sleep-Hygiene-Fact-Sheet-Rested-Life.pdf