Hands up if you’d like to sleep for longer at night and not deal with endless wake-ups? It’s estimated that around a third of us will experience problems with our sleep at some point in our lives. So if you’re struggling with broken sleep, take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone, and that there are ways you can learn how to sleep for longer.
Thankfully there are a number of tips you can try to help you drift off and stay asleep during the night. Here, Dr Lindsay Browning, a neuroscientist, chartered psychologist at Trouble Sleeping and author of Navigating Sleeplessness, talks us through how to sleep for longer.
Why do some of us experience broken sleep?
To understand whether you’re suffering from broken sleep, let’s first look at what that involves. “Sometimes we’re aware of waking between sleep cycles, which is perfectly normal; normal sleep cycles are around 90-110 minutes long, and repeat across the night,” explains Dr Browning. “Other times, we may wake within a sleep cycle itself, which is more damaging to our sleep.
“This is where someone falls asleep OK, but wakes after a number of hours and is unable to return back to sleep in order to complete their nightly sleep needs,” explains Dr Browning. “Someone may find themselves awake at 3am or 4am and unable to return to sleep until a few hours later, leaving them not having had enough sleep that night.” If this sounds familiar, you might want to speak to a doctor or sleep expert for further help.
“As long as your awakening isn’t too long and you can get back to sleep relatively quickly, and as long as your sleep cycles themselves aren’t broken up, then ‘broken sleep’ isn’t a major problem,” Dr Browning continues. However, some of us are unfortunately more susceptible to broken sleep causing problems.
“We’re more likely to be aware of waking up during the night if we’re stressed, if there are external noises or disruptions, or if we’ve drunk a lot of alcohol,” reveals Dr Browning. “Awakenings also tend to get more noticeable as we age.”
Do our sleep cycles and needs change with age?
We’ve all heard the expression ‘to sleep like a baby’, and it’s true that we need the most sleep at this age; around 14 to 17 hours a day, actually. This amount gradually declines as we get older, but it’s not just the amount of recommended sleep that changes as we age.
“Our sleep cycles themselves change as we get older, as we tend to get less deep sleep,” Dr Browning tells us. “Children have much deeper sleep than adults, and as we age, our deep sleep tends to decline. Although 18-64 year olds are recommended to have seven to nine hours of sleep per night, older adults (65+) probably only need seven to eight hours.” (You'll find more information in our guide to sleep needs by age.)
How to sleep for longer: tips for falling and staying asleep
So what can we do to help ourselves fall asleep in the first place, and crucially, stay asleep for longer during the night? Here Dr Browning outlines seven expert tips that should have you snoozing peacefully in no time...
1. Don’t drink alcohol before bed
There’s a common misconception that drinking alcohol in the evening can help us to sleep better but, as Dr Browning explains, this is unlikely to be the case. “Alcohol is a sedative, but it also disrupts your sleep during the night,” she points out. “It’s not a good idea to use alcohol to help you sleep because, although you may fall asleep more quickly, your sleep will be negatively affected for the remainder of the night.”
2. Avoid caffeine in the afternoon
We all know it’s not a great idea to reach for that after-dinner espresso if we want to get a good night’s sleep. “Caffeine is a stimulant that stops your body from realising how much you need to sleep,” explains Dr Browning. “Therefore you may find it hard to fall asleep if you’ve consumed caffeine, as your body won’t think it needs to.”
But while we should avoid caffeinated drinks and snacks before bed (we’re sorry to report that there’s caffeine in chocolate too), it might also be wise to avoid them in the daytime. “Caffeine has an approximate six hour half-life, so it’s a good idea to avoid caffeine within six hours of bed,” advises Dr Browning.
3. Create a bedtime routine – and stick to it
There’s a reason why sleep training for babies involves sticking to a rigorous routine; it really does help with shut-eye. “Having a bedtime routine helps your brain and body get ready for the night, as you’re giving it consistent signals that bedtime is coming,” Dr Browning explains.
And is there anything in particular we should include in our grown-up bedtime routine? “Incorporating wind down elements, like a bath or reading a book, will help your brain and body be in a more relaxed state and ready for sleep.”
4. Go to bed and wake up at the same time
It’s not the most fun solution for fixing broken sleep, but sticking to a specific bedtime and wakeup time really could make all the difference in helping you to learn how to sleep for longer.
“Our circadian rhythm loves routine, and we fall asleep and stay asleep better when we consistently go to bed and wake up at the same time each day,” says Dr Browning. “By moving our bedtime and wake up times day by day we are, in essence, giving ourselves jet-lag.” You heard it here first: no more weekend lie-ins.
5. Avoid electronic devices
You may find it hard to relinquish your phone or tablet before bedtime, but electronic devices can interfere with our ability to fall and stay asleep in two main ways. “Firstly, devices often emit blue frequency LED light that especially impacts our ability to produce melatonin (our sleep hormone),” clarifies Dr Browning.
“When our eyes are exposed to bright blue frequency light, our brain interprets that as evidence that it is daytime, and actively tries to keep us awake by stopping melatonin production.
“Secondly, if we’re scrolling through social media or checking work emails in bed, this will keep us distracted and absorbed in the content, and we may forget to stop and go to sleep.” So try to avoid using your devices around an hour before bed, and keep them out of the bedroom if you can.
6. Try not to nap
There’s nothing more appealing after a night of broken sleep than settling in for a nap, but Dr Browning warns that this could do more bad than good for your slumber overall.
“If you nap during the day, you won’t need as much sleep at night. Therefore if you’re napping because you’re struggling to sleep at night, this can lead to a vicious cycle,” she explains.
“Taking a long nap, or napping later in the day, can be especially harmful for our ‘sleep hunger’ at night. An evening nap on the sofa in front of the TV can significantly impair our ability to fall asleep when we do go to bed, even if the sofa catnap was short.”
7. Consider your in-bed comfort
It makes sense that a cozy, comfy bed could help improve sleep, so if you’re struggling with broken sleep, it could be time for an audit of each element of your bed. “If your mattress or pillows aren’t providing the right level of support for your sleeping style, or they’re too old and have lost their composition, then it’s likely your sleep will suffer,” says Dr Browning.
“You may struggle to drift off if you can’t get comfortable, or you may wake during the night more frequently if you’re in pain or uncomfortable. Generally, a mattress has a lifespan of around seven to eight years, and should be replaced after that time.
“Also, pillows and duvets need regular washing to stay hygienic as they can absorb a great sea of sweat and other body matter during the night. If you get too hot or cold in bed, your duvet may be the incorrect tog. You might want to change your duvet thickness from winter to summer, and if you get too cold in bed while your partner is too hot, you could consider using two separate single duvets of different thicknesses, so you’re both comfortable.”
Ultimately, learning how to sleep for longer is worth the effort, as even with some simple changes to your diet and lifestyle, you'll soon that you can make a big difference to your shut-eye, and that will help you to feel healthier and happier in the days too.
Meet the expert
Dr Lindsay Browning, BSc MSc (Oxon) CPsychol AFBPsS, is a chartered psychologist, neuroscientist, sleep expert and author of Navigating Sleeplessness: How to sleep deeper and better for longer. Dr Browning founded her sleep clinic, Trouble Sleeping, in 2006 to help people improve their sleep and wellbeing through sleep therapy based on the universally recognized Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). Dr Browning has degrees in neuroscience and psychology, and a doctorate from the University of Oxford where she studied the relationship between insomnia and worry.