When you think of preparing for a great night’s rest, what comes to mind? Some might say taking a relaxing shower. Some might swear that their favorite pair of pajamas makes for the best sleep. And still others might believe that reading just before getting under the covers is the key.

Indeed, none of these ideas hurt. Having a relaxing bedtime routine is important, but you might be surprised to learn that you really need to start preparing for a great night’s sleep long before turning in for the night.

In fact, what’s even more critical in getting great sleep at night is making mindful decisions about your sleep during the day. These changes don’t have to be hard or time consuming. There are several small changes you can make that lead to a more restful you.

Reasons why you’re having trouble sleeping

It’s normal to experience a poor night’s sleep every once in a while. But if you’re having regular sleep issues, there are several possible culprits:

  • Stress Stress is a big reason that people have trouble sleeping. Your mind might be active at night thinking about your work, school, family issues, finances or other worries.
  • Poor sleep habits – Going to bed at a different time every night, using your phone in bed, working from your bed and taking naps during the day can all affect how well you sleep. Making small changes to your habits can have a huge impact on how well you sleep at night.
  • Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine – Stimulants, like caffeine and nicotine, keep you awake. Using them too close to bedtime can make falling asleep difficult. Alcohol is a depressant, so it might make you feel tired, but alcohol can keep you from getting deep, restful sleep.
  • Change to your schedule – A shift in your work schedule, recent travels or a time zone change can throw off your circadian rhythm, your body’s internal 24-hour cycle that regulates when you sleep and wake up. If you’ve just gone through a schedule change, give yourself some time to adjust.
  • Side effects of certain medicines – Disrupted sleep is a possible side effect of several medicines. It you think a new medication is affecting your sleep, reach out to your doctor to talk about the side effects.
  • Sleep disorders – In some cases, sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome can make getting a good night’s sleep challenging. A sleep specialist can help diagnose sleep disorders.
  • Certain health conditions – Health issues like diabetes, heart disease, asthma and other chronic conditions can affect your sleep. Talk with your primary care doctor or clinician if you think that another health issue is affecting your quality of sleep.

How much sleep do you need?

The amount of healthy sleep needed varies from person to person, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night.

You might notice that you need a little more or a little less than the recommended guidelines. If you wake up most days feeling refreshed, you’re probably getting enough sleep at night.

How to get better sleep

There are several ways to improve sleep quality, including starting a bedtime routine, avoiding naps during the day, getting more sun and enjoying regular exercise. You might find that a combination of these sleep tips will work best for you.

1. Stick to a morning routine

Planning for good sleep starts in the morning. Keeping your sleep cycle regular can help you sleep at the same time every night. Your morning routine should include waking up at the same time every day — yes, even on the weekend.

Making your bed and preparing your sleep space after you wake up in the morning can also help you sleep better. You’ll start the day with one accomplishment under your belt, and your bed will be a calm, inviting space when night rolls around.

Eating a hearty, healthy breakfast can also fit in a good morning routine. Having large meals earlier in the day and smaller meals before bed can help you fall asleep.

2. Get some sunshine

Natural daylight plays a big role in our circadian rhythms. Soaking in the sun helps our brain know that it’s daytime and we need to be alert. That way, when it’s dark in our bedroom, our brain can tell our bodies to get to sleep. Plus, just being exposed to nature can have a range of positive health benefits.

Try stepping outside right after you wake up, on your lunch break or when you get home from work! Aim for spending 30-45 minutes in the sunlight every day.

3. Cut back on caffeine

A cup of coffee in the morning or a soda on a lunch break can put a little pep in your step, but it might be affecting your sleep more than you think. It can take up to 10 hours before caffeine is completely out of your system. If you drink a coffee at two in the afternoon, it can still affect you at midnight.

Do your best to finish drinking caffeine before lunch hour. And try to limit yourself to 200 mg of caffeine a day — that’s about the equivalent of two cups of coffee.

4. Get regular exercise

A regular routine of exercise is a great way to deepen sleep. When we exercise, our core body temperature increases and signals that it’s time to be awake. Throughout the day, our body cools off and signals that it’s time to rest.

Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week. If you have trouble waking up in the morning, get moving a few minutes after you get out of bed to help you feel more alert.

But keep in mind, if you enjoy more intense exercise like weightlifting, speed walking, running or high-intensity sports, do these at least four hours before bed. The temperature boost you’ll get from these activities may make it difficult to sleep.

If you can’t sleep at night, you might have to say goodbye to your afternoon nap. Sleeping during the day can throw off your sleep cycle and make it more difficult for you to fall asleep at bedtime. If you need to nap, try to keep it shorter than 90 minutes.

6. Don’t drink liquids after six in the evening

If you’re often waking up to pee in the middle of the night, you might be drinking too close to bedtime. Limit how much you drink after 6 p.m.

7. Eat snacks that might help you sleep

If you feel like you could have a little snack before bed, indulging might help you sleep better. There are many foods that have vitamins and nutrients that can promote better sleep. Magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron, omega-3 and vitamin D can all help you sleep.

Snacks like yogurt with bananas, apple with string cheese, hummus, almonds or peanut butter with whole-grain crackers are all good late-night choices.

8. Avoid screens before bed

Scrolling on your phone might be making it difficult for you to fall asleep. The blue light that comes from your electronics actually tells you to stay awake since it mimics natural daylight. To allow your body to relax before bed, put away your devices about 90 minutes before bedtime.

9. Adjust the temperature before bed

Adjust your thermostat so the temperature in your home is slightly different than what it may have been during the day. On average, our bodies sleep best at night when it’s around 68 to 72 degrees. And these cooler temperatures can help you fall asleep faster, too.

10. Go to bed at the same time every night

A consistent sleep schedule can help your body feel tired at the same time every night. This will cut down on the amount of time you spend lying in bed, trying to sleep. It can also help you feel more refreshed when you wake up in the morning.

11. Create a bedtime routine

A regular bedtime routine is an important part of having good sleep hygiene. It can help reduce nighttime stress and anxiety, and it can help you fall asleep at the same time each night.

Experiment with a bedtime routine to find what works best for you. It might include turning off your electronics at a certain time, enjoying a bedtime snack and doing a relaxing activity like meditating or reading. Whatever you choose to do, try to do it every night. Consistency is key.

How to know if you have a sleep disorder

It’s normal to have difficulty sleeping for a few days here and there. However, pay attention if certain sleep issues last for three weeks or more. They could be signs of a sleep disorder.

Some common symptoms of sleep disorders include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Snoring
  • Morning headaches
  • Mood changes and irritability due to lack of sleep
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep for more than three weeks
  • Regular nightmares or night terrors
  • Waking up choking or gasping.

When to talk to a doctor about difficulty sleeping

If you have been having trouble sleeping for more than three weeks, or if you notice any symptoms of sleep disorders, make an appointment with a primary care doctor or clinician. Your primary care doctor will listen to your concerns and help you set up a visit with a sleep specialist, if needed.