Shelby Freedman Harris, PsyD for YouBeauty
For most of us, the summer is a time to let loose and enjoy the longer days as much as possible. With fewer schedules and demands (and more fun!), comes a less strict sleep-wake schedule and daily routine. Once summer flies by and fall is knocking at our doorstep, many people find it more difficult to adjust their sleep schedule back to what it was before all of the summertime fun began. Although it is especially true for children who go back to school in August or September, adults can also suffer the consequences from shifted summer sleep schedules.
Once fall arrives, we might find that we are still doing many activities in the evening and nighttime, making it difficult to fall asleep at the earlier desired time. This then snowballs into more trouble getting up in the morning, daytime sleepiness and sleeping in on the weekends as an attempt to "catch up" on lost sleep (which rarely works).
Some lucky people find that they can just change their sleep timing to go to bed earlier and wake earlier without any issue. If you're one of those people, the sooner you start keeping a steady sleep-wake schedule seven days per week, the better! If you aren't one of those people (most aren't), here are some suggestions that can help.
1. Create A Fake Sunset At Home
Dim the lights and avoid any screen time (i.e. computers, cell phones, TVs) at least one hour before your new desired bedtime (but ideally two hours before). Melatonin is a hormone that's naturally produced in our brains and it comes out when the sun starts to set. Melatonin helps to induce sleepiness and keeps us asleep throughout the night. Bright light can limit melatonin production, and blue light (especially from all the electronics screens) is an even bigger offender.
2. Wind Down
While dimming all the lights in your house, practice winding down your body and mind as well. Find relaxing activities and hobbies that are calm, quiet and soothing. This is not the time to return emails, finish work and be active. Sleep isn't an on/off switch -- it is more like a dimmer switch where you turn down the lights and your body.
3. Light Bright
Do the opposite in the morning. When you wake up, get up and open all the curtains in your house. Get as much natural light as you can. Eat breakfast in front of a window. Bright light stops melatonin production, wakes us up and helps us keep a more consistent bed and wake schedule.
4. Stay The Course
Keep a steady sleep-wake schedule seven days a week. Our bodies don't have a "weekday" switch and a "weekend" switch. We need to keep things steady. If you sleep in on the weekends, you'll only make it harder to go to bed at a more normal time come Sunday night.
5. Slow And Steady
If you're really struggling with adjusting, some people find that gradually adjusting to a new schedule can help. Go to bed 15 minutes earlier (and wake up 15 minutes earlier) every day until you reach your target bed and wake times. This also means that you should dim the lights and wind down at home 15 minutes earlier every night.
6. Eat For Sleep
Get back on a healthy overall diet. We often loosen up our diet rules over the summer in favor of the ice cream and pie. Limit sugar at night, and avoid anything with caffeine (soda, coffee, tea, chocolate) after noon. Avoid alcohol within three hours of bedtime since it can disrupt sleep even further.
If you've tried the above suggestions and you are still struggling with sleep issues, talk with your doctor or a sleep specialist since there are other treatment options that can be quite useful.