How to get to sleep

“I can't get to sleep”

Sleep problems affect 1 in 3 of us at any one time, and about 10% of the population on a chronic basis. Problems getting to sleep will be familiar to most of us at one point or another – lying there, staring at the ceiling, just willing your eyes to shut whilst the clock counts round. For most people this is associated with a period of stress or excitement – an important meeting at work or a big event like a wedding for example. Once that stress has passed, it is once again possible to get to sleep quickly.

However for some people this problem persists – every day worrying “am I ever going to get to sleep tonight?”, and most nights lying awake frustrated, just wishing for some help to get back to sleep. This is a subtype of insomnia, referred to as 'Difficulty Initiating Sleep' in the official DSM-IV manual of psychiatric disorders. In the recent Great British Sleep Survey (GBSS), approximately 13% of all chronic poor sleepers experienced only problems with getting to sleep, while approximately 60% experienced problems with both falling asleep and staying asleep. The inability to initiate sleep can be very distressing at night-time but also has consequences for the daytime – reducing daytime energy, concentration and mood. For some people this trouble getting to sleep persists for years or even decades. Indeed, 45% of all poor sleepers in the GBSS had suffered sleep disturbance for more than 6 years.

So, how do you get to sleep more easily?
For short-term problems there are a number of ways to get to sleep more easily. Sleep medication can be effective, although for some these can cause side effects the next day, and cannot be taken for longer than a couple of weeks. Guided relaxation techniques such as Progressive Relaxation and Imagery can also be helpful for acute problems with getting to sleep. Other sleep aids may also be of use.

However for longer-term problems with getting to sleep Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be most effective and is recommended by NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence), the body that advises the NHS. Our own Sleepio course features cognitive and behavioral techniques and was shown in trials to reduce the average time taken to fall asleep by 50% over a six week period in a group of long-term poor sleepers. Although CBT for insomnia is not readily available on the NHS such online programs and other self-help materials are now allowing a wider audience to access such evidence-based therapies, and hopefully help them get to sleep faster and with less worry.

How to get a good night's sleep

“How can I get a good night's sleep?”

“I've got no problem falling asleep, and I stay asleep right through the night…it's just that, when I wake up, I don't feel refreshed! I just can't get a good night's sleep.” Does that sound familiar?

A surprisingly high number of people have what would be classed as 'normal' sleep patterns, but nonetheless wake up feeling sleepy, dull and unfocused – unable to concentrate and generally feeling 'below par'. It is sleep quality, rather than duration or continuity, where the problem lies – they simply cannot get a good night's sleep. This can be particularly frustrating since in the absence of a disturbed sleep pattern there are no obvious ways to improve sleep quality alone, and nothing more than sleep tips available to help.

The clinical term for problems with sleep quality in the absence of sleep pattern disturbance is 'Non-restorative sleep' (NRS). Persistent and regular problems of this sort that cause significant distress qualify as an official insomnia subtype according to the internationally-recognized DSM-IV manual of psychological disorders. Results from the Great British Sleep Survey (GBSS) indicated that about 9% of poor sleepers experience NRS. Importantly, NRS should be considered as important as other types of insomnia, like those with problems falling asleep, because impairment in daytime functioning has been shown to be similar across these groups.

NRS as a distinct type of insomnia is only now beginning to receive attention in the clinical and scientific literature. This means that treatment options for this subtype are currently being explored. Importantly, work using CBT methods have revealed improvements in sleep quality, after course completion. Indeed, the Sleepio course, which features cognitive and behavioral techniques, was shown in clinical trials to increase sleep quality by 114% on average. Such online sleep improvement programs are a promising new way to help those with bad quality sleep get a good night sleep.

If you want to know more about your sleep please consult your doctor, or find out more about the Sleepio course here.

Staying asleep during the night

“How can I stay asleep through the night?”

For many people suffering poor sleep, it isn't going to bed and getting to sleep which proves to be problematic but staying asleep during the night. There are plenty of people who drift off happily and easily at the beginning of the night only to find themselves, eyes wide-open a matter of hours later, unable to get back to sleep with hours left to wait until the morning. Others still, will be able to get back to sleep but will find themselves waking repeatedly throughout the night, feeling that they've spent most of their night somewhere between being fully awake and fully asleep.

These mid-sleep awakenings will be experienced by most people at some point in their lives and it isn't unusual for people going through a particularly stressful period to report sleep disturbance of this kind. Short-term sleep problems may affect 30% of the population at any one time, though these tend to be short-lived. The majority of people find they recover from periods of poor sleep in line with other changes in their life, for example, with a work problem being resolved or their daily schedule becoming more stable or reliable. For 17% of chronic poor sleepers, difficulty staying asleep through the night persists into the long-term (> 3 months). Poor sleep of this kind may be referred to as 'sleep-maintenance insomnia'.

Repeated awakenings during the night may be associated with the sleep disorder sleep apnoea where people suffer from lowered levels of blood oxygen, most often due to physical obstructions in their airway. Individuals diagnosed with this sleep disorder will often find their sleep to be severely disrupted by numerous short awakenings as their body struggles to maintain a normal and safe level of oxygen in the blood. Problems with wakening up early (early morning awakenings) and being unable to resume sleep, have also been associated with stress and clinical depression.

For some, simple lifestyle changes may be enough to improve sleep maintenance, for example, cutting down on alcohol which, whilst encouraging sleep onset, may disturb sleep later in the night as withdrawal symptoms set in.

For those with chronic sleep-maintenance problems, and where other potential causes of sleep disturbance have been ruled out, research using cognitive behavioral techniques has shown reduction in the number of awakenings and duration of awakenings during the night. In a clinical trial of Sleepio participants experienced a 60% reduction, on average, in time spent awake during the night.

Find out more about the science behind the Sleepio course and whether it might be suitable for you.

How to get to sleep fast

Many people find themselves struggling to get to sleep fast, and there are certain populations who may be more likely to experience trouble getting to sleep: the older population and menopausal women, for example.

In milder cases, not being able to get to sleep fast can be a temporary or a one-off occurrence, triggered by a single event or stressor which has no lasting impact on sleep. In other cases, persistent trouble getting to sleep may call for adjustments to your environment, behavior and thinking.

It is important to note however that 'normal sleepers' regularly take between 10 and 15 minutes to get to sleep – perhaps not as fast as you might wish, but certainly within a 'normal' range. In fact, falling asleep within minutes of your head hitting the pillow may be more common in those who have accumulated sleep debt (i.e. they are sleep deprived) than in 'healthy sleepers'.

Trouble getting to sleep can be caused by dissociation between so-called 'sleep stimuli' and sleep. Getting into bed at night may, for example, fail to trigger sleepiness and instead lead to feelings of anxiety or stress. The more desperate someone is to get to sleep quickly, the further their anxiety rises and their mind races. Rather than 'turning off' their thoughts, they spend hours in bed staring at the ceiling or tossing and turning to find a comfortable sleeping position.

As the results of the Great British Sleep Survey show, many people will spend this time worrying about the day ahead and dwelling on how long they have been awake for. Whilst this is far from unusual, it can lead to elevated stress levels and further postpone sleep.

The good news is that there are many techniques that can help you get to sleep faster each night.

Your bedroom

Room temperature was found to be one of the top 5 physical factors affecting the sleep of respondents to the Great British Sleep Survey. In fact, 34% of those surveyed reported being frequently affected by room temperature – that's a huge number of people!

Modern, centrally heated homes are often too warm late into the evening. This may promote drowsiness but may not be optimal for sleep. Seemingly small adjustments in temperature really do have the potential to improve your sleep, and you should aim to keep your bedroom around 18 degrees Centigrade.

Your lifestyle

Making changes to some of your daily habits can also help encourage the onset of sleep. It may be, for example, that the food you are eating before bed contains stimulants, such as caffeine, that activate the central nervous system.

Caffeine use has been linked to both non-restorative sleep and daytime sleepiness in many studies, and can result in a longer time to fall asleep, reduced deep sleep, and an overall reduction in total sleep time. Nicotine, found in cigarettes, acts in a relatively similar way to caffeine, again making it more difficult to get to sleep fast.

You may also choose to avoid using computers, tablets and smartphones before bed. We know that the light emitted from these devices can inhibit and delay the production of melatonin, making it more difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep. It's advisable, therefore, to keep electronic gadgets out of the bedroom and stop using them at least an hour before you go to bed.


Sleeping pills are often the first line of treatment offered to poor sleepers by their doctors and, although they are not recommended for persistent sleep problems, they may indeed be effective for acute or short-term poor sleep.

Research however, has shown that the majority of people with poor sleep would prefer to solve their poor sleep without medication and, whilst they may help you get to sleep faster, in many cases they will stop being effective with repeated usage over time.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), on the other hand, has been shown to be a highly effective long-term treatment for poor sleep. CBT works by training people to use techniques that address the mental (or cognitive) factors associated with insomnia, such as the 'racing mind', and to overcome the worry and other negative emotions that accompany the experience of being unable to sleep.

Alongside this, CBT helps people with poor sleep establish a healthy sleep pattern and to achieve a strong connection between their bed and successful sleep, meaning that falling asleep and staying asleep in bed becomes more automatic and natural. In fact, the results of the clinical trial of the Sleepio program found an average reduction in time taken to fall asleep of 50%.

Espie, C.A., Kyle, S., Williams, C., Ong, J.C., Douglas, N.J., Hames, P., Brown, J.S.L. (2012). A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of online cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic insomnia disorder delivered via an automated media-rich web application. Sleep, 35(6), 769-781.

What to do when you can't sleep

Whilst some lucky people are struck by inspiration during the night, you may well find yourself at a loss for things to do when you can't sleep. With frustration setting in very quickly at these times it is a good idea to have a plan in place if you do wake during the night. This way you know where to go and what to do if you can't sleep – with minimum fuss.

Take up a relaxing activity
Occupying yourself with a relaxing activity at these times may encourage sleepiness to set in again. These activities should put your mind at ease without requiring a great deal of attention or energy. You could try:

  • Reading a book
  • Knitting
  • A jigsaw puzzle
  • Sketching

Any activity that has the potential to make you more alert is best avoided both late in the day and during the night. Using computers or other gadgets isn't recommended either, as the light they emit may make you more alert.

Listen to music
Certain genres of music may be more suitable ahead of bedtime, or whilst in bed. This includes undemanding music, which blends into the background and does not increase your heartbeat.

Avoid the television
You may be tempted to retreat to the sofa to watch television when you can't sleep and don't know what to do with yourself; it is important however to find a place and an activity which won't leave you dozing off before you return to bed.

The light and sound emitted by televisions may also cause you to wake during the night, which is not conducive to getting a good night's sleep.

Try relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques can help loosen up your muscles and prepare your body for rest. A well-practiced relaxation routine may help you fall asleep more easily at the beginning of the night but may also help you get back to sleep if you wake during the night.

People with sleep problems often have difficulty relaxing and yet it is so important that we learn to let it happen naturally and do not try to force it.

Ultimately though, relaxing activities are a matter of personal preference so why not experiment and find out which works best for you?

Sleeping positions

Recent results from the Great British Sleep Survey found 'bodily discomfort' to top the list of physical factors that negatively affected respondents' sleep. In fact, over 67% of those surveyed reported that their sleep frequently suffered due to discomfort. Further to this, the negative effects of discomfort were seen to increase with age.

This age-related increase in discomfort has been echoed in previous research into sleep positions. Studies have shown that preference for a given sleeping position may change with age, leading to Koninck et al. (1992) investigating prevalence of certain positions across different age groups. They found that all of the age groups studied showed a preference for the fetal position – lying on their side with arms and legs bent.

Some differences in comfortable sleeping positions at certain ages were observed however. Younger age groups changed their sleep positions and, in general, moved their bodies more often throughout the night than the older population. Additionally, older participants showed a preference for sleeping on their right side, with few sleeping on their stomachs, whilst children spent an almost equal amount of time sleeping on their side as they did sleeping on their backs. This preference for a side sleeping position peaked between the ages of 35 and 45.

Following research such as this, it has been suggested that the older population may prefer sleeping on their side due to reduced flexibility and the additional effort required to breathe in other positions.

Sleeping position and sleep quality
In the context of certain sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea, the position one sleeps in can be highly important. That is, for certain patients, sleeping in the supine position can make apneas more likely to occur.

Healthy sleepers might only find weird or unusual sleeping positions problematic if they cause bodily discomfort. So it is best to experiment and find the sleeping position that works best for you!

Koninck, J.D., Lorrain, D., Gagnon, P. (1992). Sleep positions and position shifts in five age groups: an ontogenetic picture. Sleep, 15(2).

Best sleeping position

It has been suggested that different sleeping positions may help ease certain health problems, and it certainly is true that some people may struggle to find the best sleep position due to ailments such as back pain or age-related issues. In fact, the older we get the more likely we are to report our sleep being disrupted by physical discomfort, as shown in the results of the Great British Sleep Survey.

However, whilst certain positions may be more comfortable than others, persistent sleep problems are unlikely to be resolved by changing one's sleeping position. In fact, tossing and turning to find the best position to sleep may leave you increasingly frustrated and upset.

Sleeping positions are generally just a matter of personal preference, so what matters is finding what works best for you!

Sleeping tips

Need some tips to help you sleep? It isn't always easy to get the basics right, so here are our top sleep tips to get you started:

Resist the temptation to snooze

In that groggy state after waking up, hitting the snooze button becomes all too easy. It's likely though, that delaying your alarm won't just make you late for work, it will also leave you feeling worse once you are up and out of bed.

Your body begins preparing you to wake some time before the alarm goes off, releasing hormones that promote alertness and getting you ready to face the day. Hitting the snooze button confuses this process, as sleep-promoting hormones are released into your bloodstream, making it even more difficult to awaken.

Avoid caffeine

Caffeinated beverages late in the day have been shown to prolong efforts to fall asleep as well as negatively impacting sleep quality. Even the healthiest sleeper should be careful with the amounts of caffeine that they are ingesting.

Whilst we're familiar with caffeine in tea, coffee, chocolate bars and soft drinks, it's important to note that caffeine can also be a 'hidden' substance in products such as medication.

Cut down on alcohol in the evening

Alcohol may ease getting to sleep as it can make you feel sleepy and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. However, sleeping with alcohol in one's system changes the composition of sleep stages so that once the alcohol wears off, you will spend more time sleeping in the lighter, non-restorative, stages of sleep. Alcohol-induced sleep can thus not only leave one more vulnerable to sleep disturbance but prevent one from feeling refreshed in the morning. Vivid or bizarre dreams are also more common during alcohol-induced sleep.

Avoid napping

Napping during the day can lower the sleep pressure we feel in the evening, postpone feelings of sleepiness and reduce time spent in deep sleep during the night.

On the whole, sleeping during the day is inconsistent with our internal biological clock and can lead to a more variable sleep times and quality during the night.

Avoid stimulating activities late in the day

Stimulating activities should be avoided before bedtime. These can include overloading oneself with food in the evening or even reading the latest page-turner in bed.

The ideal activity at this time of the day would be to relax the body and the mind and let go of the day behind you. The point is to de-arouse oneself to prevent struggle falling asleep.

Keep your bedroom dark

Keeping one's sleeping environment dark will not only prevent sleep disruption due to lights but can also affect how one sleeps. It is during the dark phase when the hormone that promotes sleep (melatonin) is released in the brain. Lying down in a dark bedroom can further stimulate its production and thus ease the onset of sleep.

Commit to a schedule

A consistent bed and rising time is key for a poor sleeper and will increase the predictability and consistency of sleep. Regardless if one is a night owl or a morning lark, sleeping at the right time of the day is important in order to get the right composition of specific sleep stages for maximum sleep benefits.


Exercise has long been linked to better (and deeper) sleep, whilst reduced physical activity has been linked to more frequent incidence of insomnia.

Aerobic exercise in particular, practiced three times a week, has been shown to help adults with chronic insomnia by improving their sleep quality, reducing the time to falling asleep and reducing the number of awakenings during the night (Passos et al. 2011). However, intense aerobic exercise is discouraged too late in the day as it may postpone the initiation of sleep.


Brown, S.L., Salive, M.E., Pahor, M., Foley, D.J., Corti, M.C., Langlois, J.A., Wallace, R.B., Harris, T.B. (1995). Occult caffeine as a source of sleep problems in an older population. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 43(8), 860-864.

Passos, G.S., Poyares, D., Santana, M.G., D'Aurea, C.V.R., Youngstedt, S.D., Tufik, S., de Mello, M.T. (2011). Effects of moderate aerobic exercise training on chronic primary insomnia. Sleep Medicine, 12, 1018-1027.

Espie, C.A., Kyle, S., Williams, C., Ong, J.C., Douglas, N.J., Hames, P., Brown, J.S.L. (2012). A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of online cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic insomnia disorder delivered via an automated media-rich web application. Sleep, 35(6), 769-781.

Help me sleep

You're not alone in looking for help to sleep. In fact, 1 in 3 of us will experience sleep problems at some point in our lives. These may be temporary sleep disturbance associated with stress, but for some poor sleep becomes an established pattern, night on night for years or even decades. You might start to think you have lost the knack of sleeping well but you might just need a little help to get your sleep and wakefulness cycles back on track.

Many poor sleepers have an unpredictable sleeping pattern, meaning that they live in a state of uncertainty about the night ahead. The good news is that sleep, as a natural bodily process, can be effectively improved using both cognitive (mental) and behavioral techniques, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Here is our quick guide to helping yourself sleep well:

Don't think about not sleeping

The majority of advice on improving your sleep will tell you not to focus on the fact that you're awake when you should be sleeping and, whilst this may be correct, many people struggle to put this into practice.

It is likely that not being able to 'shut down' or 'turn off' your mind once in bed will be a familiar experience to most of us. In fact, respondents to the Great British Sleep Survey revealed the so-called 'racing mind' to be that most frequent cause of their sleeplessness.

Whether you find yourself thinking about past or future events, or even trivial things that hold little importance, you may find getting up and out of bed does more for your sleep than lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. Sometimes, giving up on trying to sleep, as contradictory as it sounds, can be more productive and far less frustrating.

Shift your thoughts away from not sleeping and create a plan which you will follow if you cannot sleep, or you wake during the night.

Relax the body and mind

There are different types of relaxation, but broadly, each aims to reduce both muscle tension and/or mental arousal.

There is the relaxation that we get from active pursuits: 'high energy' relaxation, if you like, where we burn up physical and mental stress. Then there is more passive relaxation, which is like 'letting go' rather than burning up. To be a good 'all-rounder' at relaxing it's good to have skills in all aspects!

People with sleep problems often have difficulty with the passive approach to relaxation, the letting-go bit. It's so important with sleep that we learn to let it happen and not try to force it.

Invest in your bedroom

Your bedroom should be somewhere you look forward to being each night so it is important that you spend time making it a restful, comfortable place to be.

A bed and bedding may not be things you consider worthy of investment but they can have a huge impact on the quality of your sleep. Of course, personal preference will play a large part in what bedding is right for you, so the key is in experimentation!

What helps you sleep?

Poor sleep is likely to affect all of us at some point in our lives. In fact, poor sleep affects around 1 in 3 people at any one time, with between 10-20% of the population suffering on a chronic basis (Morin et al., 1999). That’s a very large number of people staring at the ceiling, pacing the hallway or browsing the internet in search of sleep help.

Despite poor sleep being a very common problem, it may prove to be a challenge to find effective help for your sleep; there are many 'quick fixes' and 'old wives tales' which promise to help you sleep but which lack any clinical evidence.

Foods to help you sleep

It is intuitive that what we eat may have an influence on our sleep. It is also safe to assume that going to bed hungry or alternatively, very full, may disturb your sleep so having a light snack in the evening may be a preferred option. Questions remain however, over what these should consist of, and whether certain foods may actually help sleeping.

We have all heard the theory that drinking a warm milky drink before bed will help you sleep and it is true that milk may present a good option in place of caffeinated drinks. There is however, no scientific evidence to suggest that milk will help you sleep and any improvement in sleep could be attributed to the placebo effect.

Bananas are a good option for an evening snack as they contain the essential amino acid, tryptophan (Hudson et al., 2005), which is known to promote the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is involved in the onset and maintenance of sleep and has been shown to promote relaxation, an essential ingredient for a night of good sleep. Unfortunately, research has yet to indicate that the level of tryptophan found in bananas is great enough to affect sleep regulation.

There has also been much discussion about the benefits of cherry juice drinks in improving one’s sleep. Tart cherries contain high levels of melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone associated with the dark period of the daily light-dark cycle. Unfortunately, similarly to bananas, research suggests the effects of cherry juice on sleep seems to be very limited and not an effective solution for those with chronic poor sleep.

Can physical activity help you sleep?

A range of studies have focused on the potential for physical exercise to have a positive impact on one’s sleep. Many have found that moderate aerobic exercise, if kept up over a period of time, can lead to improvements in sleep duration and quality, as well as mood and overall quality of life (Reid et al., 2010, Passos et al., 2011).

It is likely however that any effects of exercise on sleep may be related to a broader range of changes. This includes changes in the timing of sleep and wakefulness periods, improvements in mood and how people cope with stress.

Whilst food and physical activity may bring about improvements, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) remains the first-choice treatment for persistent poor sleep.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

As the name suggests, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy addresses both cognitive (thoughts and feelings) and behavioral factors, which may contribute to the maintenance of poor sleep.

One of the most common expressions of poor sleep, for example, is the inability to ‘shut-down’ or ‘turn off’ one’s mind. Both the behavioral and the cognitive techniques used within CBT help to ‘quieten the mind’ and re-instate natural sleepiness, aiding both sleep initiation and sleep maintenance.

CBT has a strong body of evidence to support its effectiveness in improving sleep using both individual (one-to-one) and group session formats. Work is now establishing how well CBT can be delivered through other mediums e.g. self-help books and over the internet.

Emerging evidence indicates that sophisticated online interventions (like the Sleepio course) can be as effective as face-to-face sessions with qualified experts in behavioral sleep medicine. This work is very promising, having the ability to reach the millions of people experiencing chronic sleep problems.


Morin C. M., Colecchi, C., Stone, J., Sood, R., Brink, D. (1999). Behavioral and Pharmacological Therapies for Late-Life Insomnia. The Journal of the American medical Association, 281(11): 991-999

Hudson, C., Hudson, S. P., Hecht, T., MacKenzie, J. (2005) Protein Source Tryptophan Versus Pharmaceutical Grade Tryptophan as an Efficacious Treatment for Chronic Insomnia. Nutritional Neuroscience 8(2): 121-127.

Reid, K. J., Baron, K. G., Naylor, E., Wolfe, L., Zee, P. C. (2010) Aerobic Exercise Improves Self-Reported Sleep and Quality of Life in Older Adults with Insomnia. Sleep Medicine 11(9): 934-40.

Passos, G. S., Poyares, D., Santana, M. G., D'Aurea, C. V. R., Youngstedt, S. D., Tufik, S., Mello, M. T. (2011) Effects of Moderate Aerobic Exercise Training on Chronic Primary Insomnia. Sleep Medicine 12(10): 1018-1027.

Sleeping positions during pregnancy

Expectant mothers will typically struggle to get into a comfortable sleeping position during pregnancy. Even in the wider population, physical discomfort is one of the top 5 most common physical factors to disrupt sleep (as found by the Great British Sleep Survey, 2012). In pregnant women, symptoms may be worsened by physical changes to the body as well as ailments like back pain and a frequent need to urinate.

Sleep problems are extremely common in women throughout pregnancy and may be prompted or exacerbated by discomfort and a preference for a particular sleeping position. Women who are used to sleeping on their stomachs, for example, may find it harder to get used to a new sleeping position in pregnancy.

Many women also worry about which sleep positions in pregnancy are the safest for the baby, particularly in the later stages. For this reason, health professionals often advise women to start getting used to sleeping on their side in early pregnancy to minimize any difficulty getting used to a new position later on.

Whilst evidence has so far failed to find a link between a mother’s sleeping position and harm to the baby (Stacey et al., 2011), health professionals will generally recommend sleeping on one’s side. This position has been found to be a good choice anatomically for both the mother and the baby as it ensures good blood flow (i.e. delivery of nutrients) to the baby and minimizes pressure on the mother’s internal organs.

Women may find the side-sleeping position easier to maintain with one pillow placed between their knees and a smaller pillow under their belly later in pregnancy. Ultimately it is however unlikely that a person will sleep in one position for the whole night. We are all prone to unconscious movement throughout the night so finding ‘the right” position when getting into bed shouldn’t be a cause of stress.

Stacey, T., Thompson, J.M.D., Mitchell, E.A., Ekeroma, A.J., Zuccollo, J.M., McCowan, L.M.E. (2011). Association between maternal sleep practices and risk of late stillbirth: a case-control study. British Medical Journal, 342:d3403

Things to help you sleep

The ancient Egyptians concocted sleep remedies from poppy and wine (Rosso, 2010), whilst the ancient Chinese identified the key factors that influence our sleeping patterns, such as time of day, or the length of time spent awake (Hans, 2010).

Sleep research has come a long way since these discoveries but we still hear of using things such as Valerian root, bananas and tart cherry juice to improve sleep.

Conflicting advice, along with the wide range of sleep aids on offer, can make looking for things to help you sleep a confusing experience. Here we explore things that are proven to help improve your sleep.

A healthy sleeping pattern

One of the most effective, and what many people consider to be the 'best' thing to help you sleep, is to keep your day-to-day schedule consistent.

In fact, regular bed and rising times are considered key for poor sleepers, as they can help increase the predictability and consistency of sleep. It doesn't matter if you are a night owl or a morning lark, setting a schedule that is consistent with your biological clock and sticking to it, can have a really positive impact on your sleep.

Attempting to catch up on lost sleep with a weekend lie-in or an afternoon snooze can also do you more harm than good. As pleasurable as it is to 'lie-in' on the weekend, deviating from your regular rising time can make sleep initiation more difficult the following night and negatively impact next-day functioning.

This pattern, of restricting sleep during the working week and oversleeping on the weekends, has been dubbed 'social jet lag' and even been linked to issues such as obesity (Roenneberg et al., 2012).

Regular exercise

It may come as no surprise that physical activity also comes high up on the list of things to help you sleep better. Moderate aerobic exercise, in particular, has been shown to bring about sleep improvements (Passos et al., 2011).

Exercising too close to your bedtime however can leave you over-aroused and prevent the initiation of sleep. It is best, therefore, to leave a minimum of 4 hours between finishing exercise and going to bed.

As long as you avoid exercise right before bedtime, keeping fit and healthy is likely to have a positive impact on your quality of sleep.


Feeling relaxed and in control is essential for a good night's sleep.

You should aim therefore, aim to fill the hour-or-so before bed with activities that allow you to 'switch off' and wind down before heading to bed. In a relaxed state you will be more likely to transition smoothly from wakefulness into sleep.

These activities should put your mind at ease without requiring a great deal of attention or energy:

  • Reading a book
  • Knitting
  • Sketching

It is likely that you will need to experiment and try a variety of things out before you find what works for you.


Rosso, A.M. (2010). Poppy and opium in ancient times: remedy or narcotic? Biomedicine International, 1, 81-87.

Hans, P.A. van Dongen (2010). Predicting sleep/wake behavior for model-based fatigue risk management. SLEEP, 33(2), 144-145.

Roenneberg, T., Allebrandt, K., Merrow, M., & Vetter, C. (2012). Social jetlag and obesity. Current Biology, 22 (10), 939-943.

Passos, G.S., Poyares, D., Santana, M.G., D'Aurea, C.V.R., Youngstedt, S.D., Tufik, S., de Mello, M.T. (2011). Effects of moderate aerobic exercise training on chronic primary insomnia. Sleep Medicine, 12, 1018-1027.