We Sleep Best When We Have a Routine. Here’s What to Do When Yours Changes.

If your sleep cycle is about to shift, consider these tips from experts to maximize your rest.

We now understand that sleep is vital, improving everything from our problem solving skills to our romantic life; and we also know that we crumble without it, becoming more susceptible to disease and losing productivity at work — the cost of fatigue alone at a Fortune 500 company is estimated at $1.5 million a week.

The National Sleep Foundation says that one of the best ways to get better rest is to stick to a consistent sleep schedule. That sounds simple. But what happens when your bedtime routine is flipped on its head? Perhaps you’re forced to take on the late — or early — shift at work, or your child’s new school term starts 45 minutes earlier than it used to. Change is inevitable, but one thing that should remain the same is the quality of sleep we get each night. Here, experts explain how you can best prepare for a change in your wake-up time, and protect your sleep.

Adjust to your new schedule before you actually have to

Our bodies adjust best to change in small increments, so you’d be wise to rejigger your sleep cycle ahead of any pending shift. Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., a senior behavioral scientist at RAND Corporation who researches sleep, suggests backing up your bedtime by about an hour each night in advance of the change. This is particularly important if you’re anticipating a major change, like switching from the morning to the night shift at work. Additionally, Troxel says that eating your meals during times that are more aligned with your future schedule can be beneficial.

Avoid stimulants

Amy Wolfson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Loyola University, says to be wary of things that are meant to keep us awake, like caffeine. Many of us have a tendency to reach for a cup of coffee in the afternoon, especially if we’re feeling lethargic, but she explains that can create more problems for us later on, especially if we’re adjusting to a new sleep routine. Similarly, avoid sleeping pills, which can be a “total disaster,” Meir Kryger, M.D., a professor of medicine at Yale University and author of Mystery of Sleep, says.

Soak up the light

External factors — like light and darkness — influence the physiology of sleep timing, like when we’re “ready” for bed, and when we’re “ready” to wake up. If you’re adjusting to a different wake-up time, it helps to adjust your body clock. Exposing yourself to natural sunlight is a great way to do this, says Jerome Siegel, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at U.C.L.A.

But if you’re not able to open the blinds and experience the warmth of the sun, artificial light exposure is also effective — especially if you need to push your bedtime later, Troxel says. Try a sun lamp, like this one. It mimics the effect of sunlight and is used to treat a variety of fatigue-related issues, like circadian sleep disorders, jet lag, and low energy.

Be careful of how much you sleep on the weekend

You don’t want to have more than a sixty to ninety-minute difference in the amount of sleep you get during the week and on the weekend, Wolfson says. For example, if you sleep until noon on Sunday, and you’re trying to get used to a 6:00 a.m. wake-up on Monday thanks to your child’s new school schedule, he notes that will be more difficult than if you hew more closely to your weekday timeline on Saturdays and Sundays.

Continue to make rest a priority

The best preparation for a change in sleep schedule is to make sure you’re not sleep deprived in the first place Dr. Kryger notes. To start, he suggests avoiding technology before bed, since we know that the light from electronics can alert the brain. Similarly, we should avoid arousing activities right before bed — like playing video games.

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