By now, you’ve probably heard (about 100 times) that you should avoid screens before bed. The reason: The artificial blue light from our TVs, computers, and phones suppresses our melatonin production, according to The National Sleep Foundation.
Thing is, we need that melatonin to regulate our circadian rhythm—our inner body clock, which tells us when to be awake and when to sleep.
There’s a psychological component to tech keeping us up, too. Whatever content we consume on our phone or computer keeps us engaged and stimulated, says certified sleep science coach Susan D’Addario, C.S.S.C. This is counterproductive to what we’re trying to do at night, which is to downregulate (slow down) the body.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends stopping screen use 30 minutes to two hours before bed. This allows time for the mind to disengage and the body to start relaxing.
If you’re going to nix the screens for up to two hours before you hit the hay, though, you’re probably wondering what to do at night instead. Here, sleep pros share tips for how to spend your time and settle down for the best sleep ever.
First, Know That Routine Is Key
Maybe more important than what’s in your pre-bedtime routine is that you have a bedtime routine. “Repeating something night after night really helps your brain start to associate that activity with bedtime,” says D’Addario.
However you choose to spend your evening hours, know that you don’t have to get too complicated, she says. Something as simple as washing your face every single night can be your intentional cue that it’s bedtime. Consistency is top-priority.
Then, Consider Activities That Help You Relax
When building out your actual routine, remember that it’s a subjective experience, so the right routine for you is one that’s truly yours.
Take reading a book, for example. “Some people can’t read more than a page without passing out and others get super-engaged,” says D’Addario. “You want to look for something that brings a sense of relaxation or slowing down.”
To explore your own perfect bedtime routine, think back to what comforted you as a child, or try simple activities that involve repetition.
“Maybe it’s coloring for 20 minutes,” she suggests. “Something that gives you satisfaction, but not enormous pride. Maybe it’s knitting, which can be both a calming experience and gratifying as you make something slowly.”
A few other options: writing in a gratitude journal, meditating, or practicing intentional breathing. “Focusing on appreciating parts of our day that made us feel good or slowing shallow breathing with deep exhales can really provide that calm satisfaction we’re looking for,” D’Addario says.
If Needed, Choose A Few Activities To Stack
If you tend to have a busy mind at night or often have a hard time winding down, consider building more than one activity into your bedtime routine. For example, a shower two hours before bed, followed by brushing your teeth, and finally, a puzzle and a cup of herbal tea right before you call it a night. Creating a progression of activities like this can help you step into each space—and eventually into bed—more calmly.
Incorporate Some Vagus Nerve Stimulation
An additional strategy for shifting into relaxation mode: Get into your body and activate your vagus nerve.
“The vagus nerve, the longest nerve in your body, is connected to your relaxation center, or parasympathetic nervous system,” says D’Addario. Basically, stimulating your vagus nerve signals your whole body to enter a safe, relaxed state.
“You can activate it by putting a cool pack behind your neck for 20 minutes. Singing out loud stimulates it, too.” (Perhaps belt it out in that evening shower?)
Once You’ve Settled On Your Routine, Set The Scene
To amplify your chill state, be intentional about your nighttime setting. This is especially important if you work from home.
Changing up your environment—even if you haven’t left the house all day—helps signal sleep. “Make the room conducive to relaxation,” says D’Addario. “Get that cool pack for your neck, sit in a comfy chair, and put on pink noise [think nature sounds like rain]. Step out of the mental space you were located in.”
Or, wind down with relaxing lavender essential oil or by lying under a weighted blanket, suggests John Whyte, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of WebMD.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, dim your lights and get your room nice and cool, D’Addario says. In addition to ditching screens before bed, these must-do’s prime your body for rest.