Expert Advice

5 Things You May Not Know Are Wrecking Your Sleep, According To A Sleep Doc

Plus, helpful tips for catching zzzs.

A woman reads in bed
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What are we without sleep? On average, adults are supposed to get seven to nine hours of shut-eye per night, yet a recent Snüz study revealed that most parents are getting a fraction of that. In 2021, the sleep brand surveyed 1,300 parents, 70% of whom said they lost an average of three hours of sleep per night during their baby's first year. By their kid's first birthday, they had lost 133 nights' worth of sleep. Super sh*tty, right?

Eventually, your kid's sleep schedule will evolve. In the interim, however, you may have taken up a few sleep-disrupting tendencies or habits — some that you may not even be aware of. For example, using your bed for unwinding with no intention of going to sleep. Fun fact: "Spending the day in bed" is actually detrimental to your sleep routine.

You don't need me to tell you, but I'm going to say it anyway: Sleep is so important! It recharges your batteries, helps your immune system fight off colds, and improves brain function and processing skills. Most importantly, sleep gives your body the nourishment to be physically and mindfully active in your family's life.

"When you get better sleep, you feel better, have more energy, your brain works better, and you're able to have more fun with your kids and family," Valerie Cacho, MD, an integrative sleep medicine doctor and Sleephoria founder, tells Scary Mommy.

So, how does one get better sleep while prioritizing family, work, and a social life? It's possible — but will require a bit of self-reflection.

5 Things That Are Messing Up Your Sleep Cycle

According to Dr. Cacho, there are five common sleep disruptors most adults are guilty of adopting. The good news is they can all be course-corrected pretty easily.

You're using your bed for things that aren't sleep or sex.

Though easier said than done, your bedroom shouldn't be a catch-all place for eating, working, hanging out, watching TV, and so on. Dr. Cacho shares this as one of the most common sleep disruptors she sees among her patients. "Beds are supposed to be comfortable because you're going to spend hours sleeping in them every night, but they aren't your living room couch. If you spend a lot of your waking hours in bed, it actually confuses your brain. You really want to have a strong association between seeing your bed and going to sleep," she explains.

To her point, Dr. Cacho argues you go to the gym to work out and a restaurant to dine. But if you're using your bed as a dining table, office, or couch, your brain at night is like, "Wait a second. Half the time I'm in my room in my bed I'm not sleeping, so why would I go to sleep now?"

You're going to bed when you aren't actually sleepy.

How many times have you calculated your bedtime based on how early you have to get up in the morning? It's a super common habit among adults, even more so moms, Dr. Cacho says. Unfortunately, as you may know from personal experience, you may not always be tired when your "scheduled bedtime" rolls around. "If your internal clock isn't ready to go to sleep yet, but you're in bed, lights out, willing yourself to fall asleep, it's like you're fighting nature," Dr. Cacho explains. When this happens, she suggests getting out of bed and doing something relaxing, such as gentle stretches or drinking herbal tea.

"If you're the type of person who gets anxious when they can't fall asleep, then staying in bed can make it harder to fall asleep," Dr. Cacho says. Plus, as she previously explained, you want to associate your bed with sleep. If you keep tossing and turning and grow restless in bed, it could hinder your ability to fall asleep. When you start experiencing natural sleep cues — yawning, heavy eyes, and relaxed muscles — retreat back to your bed for some zzzs.

Your bedroom isn't a sleep sanctuary.

You've probably heard the adage "a cluttered desk is a cluttered mind" or "messy desk, messy mind." Well, the same rules apply to the bedroom. "When you see mess, your brain feels messy, and then it's harder to relax and drift to sleep," Dr. Cacho explains. "You want your bedroom to be a sleep sanctuary."

Often, this is as easy as putting away laundry or taking a few minutes to make your bed every morning. Perhaps you invest in an essential oils diffuser or a new collection of candles. Dr. Cacho suggests it could also mean revamping your bedding. Maybe it's been a few years since you got new pillows, or your bedspread doesn't feel as inviting anymore. If you have young kids, consider making your room a no-toy zone or implementing a cubby system where toys must be returned after playtime.

You're eating salty foods before bed.

Of the more obvious things you shouldn't do before going to bed, drive-thrus falls high on the list. Eating late-night fast food isn't great for your digestive system or sleep. More generally speaking, Dr. Cacho says you want to avoid salty foods (ramen, deli meat, french fries, and canned or boxed meals) before bedtime whenever possible — this includes snacks like popcorn or chips.

The body retains water in response to there being too much salt in the body, leaving you bloated and uncomfortable. Salt can also make you really thirsty, so you may find yourself waking up parched throughout the night. Consequently, the more water you drink before or during sleep, the more likely you are to wake up to use the bathroom. It's a never-ending vicious cycle.

How to fix it: Swap out salty, late-night snacks for fresh fruit, dark chocolate, unsalted nuts, Greek yogurt, or herbal tea. If you crave fast food, try making a healthy version at home. This way, you control what ingredients and how much goes into your food.

You're consuming stimulating content before bed.

For years now, we've been told to limit screen time before bed. While Dr. Cacho agrees with that rule, she warns that consuming any form of stimulating content — including books! — before bed can wreck our sleep. "Stimulating" content isn't limited to just scary movies or horror novels either, she says. It can be TikTok videos that make you laugh or an article roundup of the best travel destinations that gets you excited about an upcoming vacation.

"Basically, if it's stimulating enough to make you engage with a text to the group chat or evokes a lot of strong emotions, it could also potentially prevent you from falling asleep," Dr. Cacho explains. "Be conscientious about what you're feeding your brain right before you go to sleep because that could come up in your subconscious mind in sleep."

Pre-Bed Activities to Help You Get Better Sleep

  • A set sleep schedule (as much as possible)
  • Sleep mantras or affirmations (For example: "It's time to go to bed. My body needs and wants rest," or "Sleep is natural. There are rhythms in my body that will support my sleep, and I just need to allow it to happen.”)
  • Breathing exercises
  • Writing or journaling before bed
  • Listening to soft music or a sleep podcast
  • Guided meditation
  • Gentle stretching exercises
  • Drinking herbal tea (avoid caffeinated tea)
  • A warm shower or bath
  • Masturbation
  • Mind-body relaxation techniques
  • Coloring

And remember, stressing out about sleep will only keep you up at night even more. Just do your best to get some rest.