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How to Build a Bedtime Routine When You Can’t Fall Asleep

Woman in plaid pajama pants sitting on a bed with a book and mug of tea.
Story At-A-Glance
Wellness8 hours
Can’t fall asleep? Learn how to build a better bedtime routine, including this free eight-hour sleep story to help lull you off to dreamland.

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For the majority of my life, I was a fantastic sleeper. For almost forty years, I slept all night every night without any problem. My life has become a little (or a lot) more stressful over the past few months, and good sleep isn’t as easy anymore. Out of absolute necessity, I am building a toolbox of both evidence-based and anecdotal practices to help me fall asleep and stay asleep.

Before we dig in, one thing that I want you to remember is that all bodies are different. You may try one of these habits on a sleepless night and your problem may be solved. Or maybe you try several different combinations or tips before you find a bedtime routine that works for you. Like most changes in our lives, improving our sleep hygiene habits is a process best approached with curiosity. Try out a few things. Notice which habits make a difference. Repeat what works. Release what doesn’t. And remember that what works for you may not work for your sister or your best friend or me.

To me, the most challenging part of sleep difficulties has been learning how to turn off efforting myself to sleep—you can’t fall asleep when you’re trying to fall asleep. The paradox of getting good sleep is that we have to learn how to not try to sleep. As long as we are trying to sleep, our brain is turned on and monitoring and judging how hard we are trying.

We cannot effort ourselves to sleep, we can only relax our way into no longer trying to sleep. Instead of trying to sleep, we seek to introduce relaxation and maybe even a good dose of boredom. This has been the most successful sleep strategy for me!

First Up: Prepare Your Bedroom For Sleep

To create an environment that is most conducive to sleep, let’s look at your bedroom. I know this is challenging, but consider moving your electronic devices out of your bedroom—or at least make them not reachable from the bed. The jury is still out on how EMF (the waves the flow out from our electronic devices) exposure impacts sleep. But from an emotional standpoint, just knowing that the entire world of information is within an arm’s reach can dramatically impact our sleep. If you use your phone as an alarm clock, switch to an analog alarm clock.

Create a space that is physically and emotionally cozy—your bedroom should be sacred space. Remove anything from your bedroom (or at least the space around your bed) that feels like work or effort, including that pile of laundry that needs to be folded. Keep the area closest to your bed clean and uncluttered. Bring in a few photographs, crystals, or other trinkets that create a feeling of comfort. Get your comfiest sheets and comfiest blankets.

Bed with a grey comforter and white, grey, and yellow pillows. Story describes what to do when you can't fall asleep.

Remember that most people sleep best in a cool, dark room, so if you need to adjust the temperature or the light in a room, make sure to do that. Some people are extremely light sensitive, and a sleep eye mask can really help.

Secondly: You Need a Bedtime Routine

A bedtime routine is the way we physically and emotionally trigger our bodies to become sleepy. Back in the day, the sun did this for us—the sun set, our bodies got sleepy—easy-peasy. With artificial lighting and screens, we’ve gotten away from that natural sleep trigger, and we have to intentionally step in and do something to signal bedtime for our bodies.

Your Sleep Routine Starts 90 Minutes Before Bedtime

About ninety minutes to an hour before you really want to crawl into bed is when we can think about turning our screens off.

This change can be really difficult if we’ve been using our favorite show or game as a way to wind down. Even though we may feel emotionally relaxed while watching or playing, our vision and mind continue to be stimulated. Building an effective relaxation routine needs to be both emotionally and physically relaxing. Unfortunately, screens often have the opposite physical consequence. Screens off.

Once our screens are off, we can start introducing intentional relaxation. This is a good time to take a hot bath (using Lavender Bath Salts) or shower. Try to stay in for 20 minutes so that the hot water can raise your temperature. Once you get out of the bath or shower, your body will begin to cool, and it is this cooling that informs your body that it is time to sleep. Although the bath itself helps you relax, it is actually the cooling of our bodies after the bath that physically relaxes us and prepares our bodies to fall asleep.

Feet with painted toenails propped up in a bathtub.

Pre-Bed Routine

After the shower or bath, build a routine that continues to wind down both your body and your mind. Your bedtime routine can be as involved as you want it to be. Mine involves teeth care and face care. I also enjoy a lotion with a lavender scent to help me continue to relax.

You can also read (a paper book, not on your tablet), draw or color, meditate, do restorative yoga, pray, listen to quiet music, talk with your partner—anything that relaxes you. The key here is consistency: a consistent physical routine can signal to your body that you are ready to rest. I’m not saying you have to read the same book every night for the rest of your life, but the more consistent things are, the better.

A brunette woman in a purple shirt and green scarf sitting with her legs crossed, eyes closed, and hands on her chest and stomach.

Next, set the mood for sleep. You may want to use a sound machine or app for some ambient background noise. It doesn’t have to be fancy. I use an old fashioned fan or the fan sound on an app.

You can also use smells as a physical hint that it is time for sleep. I mentioned lavender lotion earlier. Lavender is a classic bedtime scent for good reason—it’s naturally relaxing and calming. I also use a Lavender Linen Spray for my pillows and the underside of my blanket. You may also find benefit in a calm-scented sleep mask.

Once You’re in Bed

Once you are actually in bed, you can work with many different techniques to help you relax.

Brain Dump

If you find yourself with lots of thoughts, a brain dump can help. You can keep a notebook and a pen beside your bed—our even use Wholefully’s worry time printables. Practice just writing everything down that you could possibly worry about overnight.

Stack of journals with a pen on a white couch

The act of taking the worry out of your mind and putting it onto the paper can provide a release of that thought. It can also serve as a reassurance that you won’t forget to handle that task or worry tomorrow. I have also rolled over in the middle of the night to write something down that is swirling around in my head. This journal is there for you whenever you need it.

Get the Wiggles Out

If you start to settle into bed and your body is holding some energy, you can use some light stretches to get the wiggles out and relax your body. Lying on your back, you can roll your head lightly from side to side, releasing any tension that your neck is holding onto.

Next, you can bend your knees and bring your feet to the bed. Let both knees drop over to one side—just as far as they go—and then to the other. The pace and depth of this movement is up to you. The intention isn’t to get into a deep stretch, but instead to work out any tension living in your lower body.

Finally, move your ankles and your wrists around in slow circles. The intention here is to simply release any physical energy that your body needs to get rid of before falling asleep.

Still not feeling sleepy? Just let it go.

What if you get here and still can’t fall asleep? Instead of trying to sleep, relax. Release. Let go of any pressure to fall asleep. You can’t manhandle yourself into sleep, so why try?

Instead, try these ideas: meditate by focusing on your inhale and exhale. Read a super boring book. Visualize yourself in a relaxing place. Or, you could do something that I’ve found really helpful—put in your headphones and listen to a sleep story.

Sleep stories work by being interesting enough to keep you from thinking about how you can’t fall asleep, but boring enough that you aren’t so interested that you stay awake. We’ve created a free sleep story that you can use anytime you need. It begins with a 30 minute simple story about a girl named Maggie who is exploring a sleepy little town, and then the story seamlessly flows into eight hours of white noise to keep you sleeping soundly. This is a great tool to use when traveling!

Remember, this is a process, and it takes time to learn what works. A bedtime routine will really help, but it does take a while for your body to “get the message” that this is the new order of business. Commit to your new sleep routine for at least two weeks before declaring it doesn’t work.

Please keep in mind that extended sleep issues are best discussed with your health care professional. If sleep issues continue for more than a month or have a negative impact on your ability to function, it is a good idea to check in with your mental or physical health care professionals. There are a number of both natural and pharmaceutical treatments that can help with sleep, so there is no need to suffer!

Krissie is a clinical counselor turned life coach out of Lexington, Kentucky. She helps rebuild the brain-body connection with breath, meditation, and a healthy dose of Curvy Yoga. Her favorite places are her yoga mat, dance night at the Irish pub, and on the couch with her husband and two chunky cats. You can find her at www.krissiebentley.com and on Instagram as @krissiebentley.

Leave a Reply

4 Responses
  1. Lynette

    Sleep stories are new to me. Tonight I plan to try the one included in the post. Thank you for bringing the idea to my attention! Any recommendations for a well-liked app or podcast for more stories? Thanks!

  2. Andre

    Great article. Very helpful, very creative. There are a lot of sleeping factors such as use a good bed, comfortable room temperature, healthy diet, regular exercise, no caffeine, turn off the mobile phone and other electronic devices etc. Thank you for sharing this creative information.

  3. Helene

    If you remove all electronic devices from your bedroom, how do you listen to the sleep story??? Just asking. The article is very useful, thanks.

    1. Julie Grice

      The sleep stories are a last resort, so just keep them out until you think the sleep story is the way to go!

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