It’s the start of a new semester—you’re probably already on top of planning your class schedule, getting ready for a new sports season, and stocking your study snack drawer. But what about your sleep?
Over 80 percent of students polled in a recent Student Health 101 survey said that the long break over the holidays messed 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 school 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 study published in 2017 found that 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 the school.
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 the 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. You may have gone to bed much later than normal, too.
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 some intense morning classes coming up, “then you might want to make sure that you don’t adjust your sleep time too much over the break,” Dr. Cote says.
“I practice the last three days of break with a [set] bedtime and work on getting up [at a specific] wake-up time,” says Morgan, a student in Stafford Springs, Connecticut.
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 bingeing 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:
- Keep your phone plugged in on the opposite side of the room from your bed.
- Switch your phone to airplane mode so you’re not disturbed by a middle-of-the-night buzz.
2. 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. Try setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to get to sleep at a reasonable hour.
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 you need 8–10 hours to get a full night’s rest. So, if you need to be up at 6:30 a.m. to make it to school on time, set a goal bedtime of 10:30 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. “Five to ten minutes of light exercise or stretching helps me the most,” says Abigail, a senior in East Moline, Illinois. 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.
Step 3: Turn your room into a sleep sanctuary—ideally, it should be dark and quiet. “Before I go to sleep, I turn down the AC to a lower temperature and use a big blanket,” says Dylan, a recent graduate in St. Petersburg, Florida. “I find this helps me get a better night’s sleep.”
What if your sleep schedule gets messed up?
The reality is 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:
- 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 St. Paul, Minnesota. Your bed should be for sleeping—not stress.
- Avoid caffeine six hours before bed—that means soda, kombucha, coffee, and non-herbal teas.
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.
J. 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.