Ep 8. Should I Wait Until I'm Sleepy to Go to Bed?

Sep 19, 2023

The “sleepy rule” is a popular one. But does it always apply?

In this episode I unpack the pros and cons behind waiting until you’re sleepy to go to bed.

If you find yourself wondering:

   “Am I sleepy yet?”

   “Is this a good time to go to bed?”

   “Is this sleepy or just fatigue?”

   “What if I’m not sleepy enough?”

This podcast is for you!

I talk about:

  • Chasing sleep and what that looks like
  • The big idea behind waiting until you’re sleepy to go to bed
  • How the brain shifts into “monitoring mode” gauging for sleepy
  • Why it can become an unintentional means of avoidance

At the very end, I share the recommendation l offer most of my clients and why I believe:

There are no rules when it comes to sleep — only decisions.

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About Beth Kendall MA, FNTP:

For decades, Beth struggled with the relentless grip of insomnia. After finally understanding insomnia from a mind-body perspective, she changed her relationship with sleep, and completely recovered. Liberated from the constant worry of not sleeping, she’s on a mission to help others recover as well. Her transformative program Mind. Body. Sleep.™ has been a beacon of light for hundreds of others seeking solace from sleepless nights.

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Should I Wait Until I’m Sleepy to Go to Bed?

One of the most common questions I get asked by my students is: When is it okay to let myself fall asleep at night?” In other words, when should I go to bed?

And a lot of times this question come from folks who have been told to only going to bed when they feel sleepy. This is a well-known guideline in the realm of CBTI, (which is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia). But I don’t see this as a cut and dried rule. So that’s what I’m going to expand on in today’s episode.

And of course, this is such an understandable question because insomnia in my view is essentially a shift in your relationship to sleep from one of effortless, to one of applying effort. People who don’t have insomnia generally don’t think too much about this, right? There’s no analysis about when to go to bed or measurement of how sleepy you are, or anything like that. You just go to bed whenever you feel like it. Which is exactly what I do now, but I remember very well trying really hard to create these perfect sleep conditions.

So in this episode, I want to break down where I think this advice can be helpful and where it can be not as helpful. And at the very end, I’ll share what I usually tell my clients when they ask me this question.

Let’s talk about where it can be helpful first...

When It's Helpful to be "Sleepy"

So, there are a couple of reasons why waiting until you’re sleepy to go to bed can be a useful guide and they center mainly around the patterns of: chasing or protecting sleep. And by chasing sleep, I’m talking about behaviors like spending large quantities of time in bed hoping to get a few hours. Or, trying to sleep at random times in random places during the day because you feel like it’s the only time you can get sleep.

Sleep is a lot like unrequited love, the harder you chase it, the more elusive it becomes!

I was really all over the map chasing sleep when I was going through it. I used to spend 10 or 11 hours in bed just hoping I could sleep for half of that. Because I looked at it like I was increasing my odds of sleep by giving myself more opportunity for it to happen. And I think also, the more time I had to sleep the less pressure I felt for it to happen. But then it just evolved into weirder and weirder time frames and circumstances, and I was just affirming my brains freaked out perception that sleep was something really hard that I had to chase to have.

At the time, I didn’t have access to anyone who was thinking about sleep in the way I currently do. And I think in the absence of helpful information, the brain will naturally start to create its own storyline about what you need to be able to sleep. Which is exactly what my brain did.

I knew somehow that chasing sleep couldn’t be good or certainly “normal” because I didn’t see anyone else doing it. But I was also on the hamster wheel of trying more and more things because I thought my ability to sleep was somehow impaired. 

Okay, so back to the idea of being sleepy before you go to bed….

The Big Idea Behind Waiting Until You're "Sleepy"

The premise behind this advice is to maximize sleep drive and create a ramp into sleep that allows you to actually sleep once you go to bed.

This makes sense because if you’re starting to engage in sleep behaviors that revolve around chasing sleep, then that’s going to create a lot of time in bed “trying” to sleep, which only leads to more frustration and struggle, right? Because sleep is passive.

So, this can be a helpful behavioral approach for some people — particularly those who are spending huge amounts of time in bed. And I think the feeling of sleepiness is just a delicious feeling to have before bed, so there is some merit to this guideline.

But there are also a few pitfalls that I see with this advice…

Common Pitfalls 

And I think the main thing is that it can become a way that we try to control sleep. So we’re continuing in the orientation of sleep as something you do, versus something that happens. And this is really where things get tricky.

Because when we start trying to create conditions conducive for sleep, not only can the brain then interpret sleep as something we need to “prepare” for. But it will often go into monitoring mode to see if the preparations are “working.” 

By monitoring, I’m talking about a hypervigilant state of assessing…

So this would be thoughts like: “Am I sleepy yet?” “Is this sleepy enough?” “Is this going to work?” “Is this sleepiness or fatigue?”

The brain stays on high alert monitoring for “sleepy” which creates the paradoxical effect of less sleepiness. 

Now, another way I see the sleepy rule sort of backfire is that it’s used as a means of avoiding whatever it is we don’t want to feel when we go to bed. And this is different for everyone.

Humans by nature seek pleasure, and avoid pain. So if you’re noticing that you’re almost sabotaging your own sleep, then it’s likely because there’s some feeling you’re wanting to avoid. 

In the context of sleepiness, we unconsciously hope that sleepiness will override whatever difficult sensations are waiting for us when we go to bed. And again, I did this my whole life and I think it’s one of the main reasons I became such a night owl — I didn’t want to feel the loneliness I felt around not being able to sleep when I went to bed at night.

I’ve also seen this happen for people who have a pattern of dread around waking up. They will avoid going to bed to extend the feeling associated with getting up. But they don’t really understand why they’re doing it.

So those are the pros and cons around going to bed only when you’re sleepy.

My Take 

I’m typically not a big fan of this guideline because I usually see it turn into a “rule.” And in my view, there are no rules when it comes to sleep — only decisions. Trying to put rules onto sleep is like trying to put rules onto breathing or pumping blood, right?? But we can decide how we want to influence our sleep — so sometimes that’s making a decision to get up earlier or a decision to go to bed later. But ultimately sleep is an effortless process that doesn’t require rules.

So, if you’re wondering when you should go to bed at night. The advice I always give my clients is: if you’re not in the pattern of chasing sleep, then go to bed when you feel like it! Or, if it’s helpful, you can use the guideline of when you went to bed before you had insomnia. If you’ve been awake during the day, you have everything you need to be able to sleep at night. Not everyone feels sleepy before they go to bed, and they still sleep. Sometimes I feel sleepy and sometimes I don’t. Either way, I sleep.

This is the Mind. Body. Sleep. podcast. I’m Beth Kendall, I’ll see you next time…

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