It’s the start of a new semester—you’re probably already on top of planning your new class schedule, stocking up on textbooks, and restocking your study snack drawer. But what about your sleep?
Nearly two-thirds of students polled in a recent Student Health 101 survey said that the long break over the holidays screwed up their sleep routine. Refreshing your sleep schedule after a break (where, let’s be real, you probably slept in a lot later than you’ll be able to once class starts again) is just as important to your academic success.
“Sleep routines act like cues for the human circadian rhythm [to] help the body know where it stands,” says Dr. Nate Watson, director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center and former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. A sleep schedule—aka winding down and going to bed around the same time and waking up at roughly the same time every day—can help your body know when it’s time to go to sleep so you’ll zonk out faster, he explains.
Here’s how to get back on track—and why it’s so important to have a sleep schedule in the first place.
Why is sleep so important?
Sleep—and, more importantly, consistent sleep—affects everything from your academic performance to your mood and overall health. Sticking to a sleep schedule (aka going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day) “is a tool to help create the best version of yourself,” Dr. Watson says. “It’s an active process of bodily rejuvenation.”
Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule can help you:
“The impact of sleep deprivation on academic performance is like a sprinter wearing ankle weights,” says Dr. Watson. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is especially important—a 2017 study found that college students who had irregular sleep schedules had lower grades than those who stuck to a steady bedtime.
Not getting enough sleep ups your levels of cortisol—aka the stress hormone.
“Chronic short sleep,” defined as regularly getting less than seven hours, shuts down certain immune responses, according to the findings of a 2017 study performed among twins. In other words, keeping a consistent sleep schedule throughout the semester (ideally, where you’re getting at least seven hours of shut-eye every night) can help you fend off the latest virus spreading around campus.
More importantly, setting up (and sticking to) a sleep schedule now can prevent you from having serious sleep problems later, says Dr. Kimberly Cote, director of the sleep research laboratory at Brock University in Ontario, Canada (e.g., having chronic trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and not feeling rested when you wake up in the morning).
How to get back into a sleep routine
“Ideally, good sleep habits and routines don’t vary according to time of year or holidays,” says Dr. Watson. But in reality, we know that can be tricky. Over the break, you may have taken advantage of not needing to set an alarm and slept in much later than normal. Without the presence of an early morning class, you likely went to bed much later than normal too. Some of you might have even switched time zones over the break.
So how do you get back on track? “You cannot ‘hack’ your sleep,” says Dr. Watson. The best thing you can do is simply plan ahead so you can gradually shift your sleep schedule, he says. In other words, if you spent your school break sleeping three hours later than you’re able to now, don’t try to make the jump back to a school-friendly bedtime all in one night. If you try to do it this way, you’ll likely just end up lying awake, frustrated for hours, and groggy the next morning. Instead, “I suggest a change of 30 minutes per night,” Dr. Watson says.
This takes a little planning. Let’s say you got used to going to bed at 1 a.m. over the break but need to be sleeping around 10 p.m. now. To shift your schedule, give yourself about a week where you go to bed 30 minutes earlier each night and get up 30 minutes earlier each morning. Even if you’re deep into the semester, you can work on this gradual change.
“If you know you have a term coming up with a lot of morning courses, then you might want to make sure that you don’t adjust your sleep time too much over the break,” Dr. Cote says.
Here’s what else you can do to help ease into your new sleep schedule:
1. Turn off your tech
You’ve probably heard that staring at a screen before bed can disrupt your sleep (the blue light from your phone or TV messes with your body’s natural sleep hormone, melatonin), but it’s not the end of the world if you spent your school break binge-watching Netflix every night. (I mean, what are vacations for?)
Once school starts again, get back into the habit of going screen-free for ideally half an hour to an hour before bed. To make your tech less tempting:
- Turn off your Wi-Fi before you get ready for bed (just make sure your roomies or family members are OK with this).
- Keep your phone plugged in on the opposite side of the room from your bed.
- Switch your phone to airplane mode or use the “do not disturb” feature so you’re not interrupted by a middle-of-the-night buzz.
- Take to pen and paper. “One of the best things I’ve tried is journaling before bed. I turn off my phone, get in bed, and write for half an hour. If you stick to it, the results are amazing,” says Maggie S., a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
2. Share your schedule with the people you live with
If you have an early class or are starting a new internship that will have you up at the crack of dawn, let the people in your house know that you’ll be going to bed earlier than usual. You don’t necessarily have to establish full-on quiet hours, but make sure they know if they’re having people over they’ll have to keep the noise level low. A helpful tip? Invest in some ear plugs and a good eye mask.
3. Stick to your new sleep schedule—even on the weekends
If you’re getting enough sleep during the week, you’re less likely to feel the urge to sleep the weekend away. A few extra Zs are fine, but drastically changing your sleep schedule on Saturdays and Sundays will disrupt your circadian clock, making it harder to get back to your sleep schedule during the week.
What if you never had a sleep schedule?
If you never quite mastered a sleep schedule you could stick to during the semester, now is the perfect time to start.
Step 1: Figure out what time you need to get up, and work backwards to find a healthy bedtime. Most sleep experts agree that you need seven to nine hours for a full night’s rest. So, if you need to be up at 7 a.m. to make it to your first class, set a goal bedtime of 11 p.m.
Step 2: Establish a relaxing routine. All it takes is 15 minutes to wind down before bed, says Dr. Cote. First, turn off your phone (or turn it on airplane mode for the night), and then take your time washing up and brushing your teeth. You might even try a few minutes of stretching or a deep breathing exercise to help you really get into the dream zone. If you’re still not feeling sleepy, read in bed—just make sure it’s not on your phone.
Some more student tips for winding down:
- Play relaxing music with dim lights.
- Have chamomile tea.
- Take a warm shower or bath.
- Use a flameless candle with a relaxing scent.
Step 3: Turn your room into a sleep sanctuary. “Being in a dark, quiet room helps a lot,” says Erik G, a second-year undergraduate at Portland State University in Oregon. Keeping your room cool will also help you sleep better.
What if your sleep schedule gets messed up?
The reality is that your sleep schedule probably won’t be perfect—studying for exams and having a social life are bound to keep you up late sometimes. That’s all right.
“Everybody has a bad night of sleep from time to time, but if you stick with your healthy sleep habits, these few bumps in the road will have no real consequences,” Dr. Watson says.
If a cram session keeps you up late, “a nap would be a good idea that day,” says Dr. Cote. Just keep it to 20 minutes. A power nap will help you feel refreshed, but anything longer might interfere with your ability to fall asleep that night, she adds.
To keep your sleep from getting even more messed up, avoid these common sleep-quality reducers:
- Say no to stimulants. You might fall asleep faster after drinking alcohol, but your sleep will be shallower and you’re likely to wake earlier. Also, try to avoid caffeine after 2 p.m.
- Many people find that exercising close to bedtime makes it more difficult to fall asleep, so plan your fitness routine for earlier in the day.
- “Try to avoid using your bed [to study]. Work from a desk, library, or coffee shop whenever possible,” says Dr. Roxanne Prichard, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. Your bed should be for sleeping—not stress.
Charles Corva, licensed clinical social worker, A Growth Place, Stockbridge, Georgia.
Kimberly Cote, PhD, director of the sleep research laboratory at Brock University, member of the Canadian Sleep Society, Ontario, Canada.
Roxanne Prichard, PhD, associate professor, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Nate Watson, MD, director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center, former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and American Board of Sleep Medicine.
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Student Health 101 survey.