Nothing beats crawling into bed after a long day and passing out. So it goes without saying that nothing is quite as infuriating as cozying up beneath the covers and then staring at the ceiling for the next two hours. There are only so many sheep you can count, and if dozing off is an issue for you, you’re probably pretty ready to get to the bottom of the issue.
We asked sleep experts to weigh in on just how long it should take to fall asleep come bedtime, what might be happening if you find yourself eyes-wide-open, and what you can do to help sleep come a little easier.
How Long Should It Take to Fall Asleep at Night?
Okay, so you’re probably wondering what’s even considered normal when it comes to falling asleep. Just how long should it really take? Well, sleep latency—or the time it takes to fall asleep—varies from person to person.
According to the Sleep Foundation, “most healthy people fall asleep within 15 to 20 minutes of lying down. However, some people will fall asleep faster and others may take longer.”
There’s no set rule, confirms psychiatrist and sleep medicine physician Chester Wu, M.D., a medical reviewer for Rise Science. “Taking anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes to fall asleep is pretty typical,” he says. It’s a decently wide window, which hopefully brings some reassurance to all those slow-dozers out there shaking their fists that their immediately-passed-out partners.
However, if you fall outside of this window, there may be cause for concern. “If you fall asleep much faster than this, it could actually be a sign you are not getting enough sleep,” explains Wu. “Conversely, regularly taking 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep might indicate that you are dealing with insomnia or some other sleep issues.”
The Possible Sleep Issues Keeping You Up At Night
There are many reasons why a person might have difficulty falling asleep. Bedtime routines, certain sleep disorders, environment, medical conditions, and medications can all leave you lying awake long after going to bed. Here are a few of the most common culprits.
1. Circadian rhythm disorders
According to the Sleep Foundation, disorders of the circadian rhythm can lead to difficulty falling asleep. Many of these disorders are caused by a mismatch between an individual’s sleep schedule and their circadian rhythm which can then make it difficult to fall asleep at a desired time. A couple of common examples include jet lag or shift work, though even staying up really late or having zero consistent sleep schedule to speak of can lead to issues.
Insomnia, or difficulty falling asleep and spending long periods of time awake at night, happens when a person has appropriate chances to fall asleep at night but cannot do so. According to the Sleep Foundation, it can occur during periods of stress or major life changes like a career change, death, or divorce. Insomnia can be chronic or short-term and lasts from a few days or weeks to months. Chronic insomnia can also come and go throughout a person’s entire lifetime.
3. Certain Medications and Stimulants
Certain medications, including antidepressants, asthma medications, beta-blockers (which decrease melatonin production), over-the-counter cold medicines, and steroids like prednisone (infamous for causing insomnia), can impact how quickly you fall asleep at night (and sleep overall), explains Wu. In addition, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco can also leave you staring at the ceiling.
Time out: Isn’t alcohol a depressant? “Confusingly, alcohol can be both a stimulant and a sedative,” says Wu. Initially, booze increases the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which can provide feelings of pleasure and reward, leading to a stimulating effect. But even after this wears off and the drowsiness hits, alcohol suppresses REM sleep, leading to more wakeups throughout the night and a lighter, less restorative sleep in the second half of the night, he explains. So while alcohol’s impact on falling asleep may depend on how close to bedtime you imbibe, it’s always a recipe for crummy sleep in the end.
4. Mental and Physical Health Conditions
Some mental and physical health conditions can lead to insomnia. In fact, according to The Sleep Foundation, everything from anxiety and traumatic brain injury to chronic pain and heart disease can lead to a delay in falling asleep at night. These health conditions are known as secondary sleep disorders, as the sleep disruptions they cause are a consequence or symptom of another primary medical or psychiatric condition, explains Wu.
“While primary sleep disorders often need direct treatment (like a CPAP for sleep apnea), managing secondary sleep disorders might involve treating the underlying condition (like adjusting medications or treating the primary medical or psychiatric condition causing the sleep disturbance),” he notes.
5. Poor Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene, or the habits and routines that promote healthy sleep, can contribute to difficulties falling asleep when it’s not ticked and tied. Environments that are too brightly lit, cold, noisy, or warm can affect how quickly you fall asleep. Exposure to blue light too close to bedtime is another surefire way to end up on the sleep struggle bus.
Late-night snacking and even going to bed super early or late also throws off your circadian rhythm, making it harder to drift off, Wu adds. Similarly, having an all-over-the-place schedule makes it difficult for the body to anticipate sleep, he says.
Tips for Supporting Easier Sleep
Want to spend less time rehashing your day or running through tomorrow’s to-do’s when your head hits the pillow? Follow these guidelines to fall asleep with greater ease.
1. Break up with technology before bed
Whether it is the computer, phone, or television, turn off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed as these devices can be distracting and stimulating. While, yes, the blue light from electronic devices can suppress melatonin and make it more difficult to fall asleep, the light may not be the biggest issue with late-night tech. In fact, Wu argues that if you get enough bright natural light during the day, the artificial light from screens at night will matter far less—and that it’s the content on your screens that ultimately keeps you up. “Avoid anything too distressing or stimulating or anything that will have you scrolling or binging past your bedtime,” he urges.
2. Nix stimulants And Food later in the day
Alcohol, caffeine, cannabis, meals, and nicotine can all interfere with sleep, which is why Wu recommends avoiding them too close to bedtime.
The ideal time to cut off each substance varies between individuals for a variety of reasons, but consider the following guidelines from Wu:
- Alcohol: three to four hours before bed
- Caffeine: 12 hours before bed (yep, you read that right)
- Cannabis: about one to four hours before bed (though there’s less consensus here)
- Meals: two to three hours before bed, or whenever the sun goes down
- Nicotine: one to two hours before bed (though not smoking at all is best for your sleep and overall health)
“With all of these, the larger the window between consumption and bed, the better for your sleep and health,” says Wu. Personal experimentation and observation might also be necessary to find the best timing for you.”
3. Create a sleep-friendly bedroom
Cool, comfortable, dark, and quiet are the key components of an ideal sleep environment, shares Wu. “Consider blackout curtains, ear plugs, eye masks, fans, or a white noise machine if needed,” he suggests.
4. Establish a supportive sleep routine
The first step in getting your sleep routine right is to actually have a routine. Wu recommends going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on holidays and weekends. If that’s not always realistic, try to keep any variance in your bedtime or wake-up time to an hour max. This way, the body’s internal clock stays regulated, which can make it easier to fall asleep and wake up, he explains.
Then, before bed, engage in pleasurable activities that promote relaxation including breathwork, deep stretching or gentle yoga, journaling, listening to quiet music, meditation, reading, or taking a warm bath. Wu also recommends putting on comfy socks or doing a warm foot soak.
The reason for getting your toesies all toasty: Warming the feet expands the blood vessels near the skin’s surface and allows heat to escape through them, which then lowers core body temperature—a signal that lets the body know it’s time for sleep. In fact, one 2018 study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology linked warming the feet with longer total sleep time and fewer awakenings during a seven-hour rest.
5. Keep A Consistent workout Schedule
Regular exercise can help people fall asleep faster and improve the length and quality of sleep, says Wu. Just avoid doing it too late in the day as it may be overstimulating and even wake you up more. Your best bet is to pencil in vigorous activity for at least four hours before bed and power down from any moderate exercise with at least 90 minutes to spare.
6. Consider a supplement
Certain supplements, such as magnesium, can help aid in a better night’s sleep. A good option is magnesium glycinate, which is gentle on the digestive system and stomach. Some other slumber supporters include valerian root, adaptogens like ashwagandha, and the amino acid l-theanine.
7. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed
If you cannot fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes of going to bed, Wu recommends getting up and doing something relaxing until you feel sleepy, at which point you can return to bed.
While sleep—including how long it takes to drift off—is clearly an individual thing, there’s no reason not to check in with an expert if you’re having difficulty falling asleep, or if lack of sleep (or clocking too much sleep) is significantly interfering with daily activities. Your healthcare provider may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), certain medications, or other treatments based on your individual needs and symptoms, says Wu. Considering we’re meant to spend about a third of our time asleep, it’s worth getting in order!