Are These Nighttime Distractions Ruining Your Sleep?
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
Many of us get so caught up in our busy lives and hectic schedules that we treat sleep as a luxury. And a full night of restorative, uninterrupted sleep? That might as well be like winning the lottery.
Between the beeps of our devices, late-night pleas to play or snuggle from our pets, or disturbances from a partner or someone else we share our bedroom with (who may or may not snore…), it's hard to get the recommended seven to nine hours of uninterrupted shut-eye. And if we fail to get undisturbed sleep, it can have a negative effect that ripples through all aspects of our lives, ultimately affecting our mood, energy levels, relationships, and more.
Whatever wakes us up in the middle of the night isn’t just annoying—research suggests that disturbed nocturnal sleep may be associated with a range of health problems, from cardiovascular disease to an increased risk of death. That’s why it’s so important to fall and stay asleep—no interruptions.
6 Common Sleep Distractions
Here are some common sleep distractions that may be negatively affecting the quality of your rest, and how to best manage them so you can get the sleep you need and deserve.
1. Too Much Technology
One of the most common sleep distractions is technology in the bedroom.
“Besides being awakened by notifications, people who sleep with their phones nearby are likely to use them right before bed, which makes it more difficult to relax our brain and fall asleep,” explains Whitney Roban, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, sleep specialist, and founder of Solve Our Sleep, a sleep training service for children, adults, and families. “When our brain is excited before bed, it makes it more difficult to fall into a deep sleep and easier to be awakened at night.”
What’s more, keeping your phone on your bedside table may prompt you to reach for it when and if you wake up in the middle of the night.
“Instead of using your phone before bed, implement a relaxing and consistent bedtime routine, such as journaling, yoga stretches, or deep breathing. And if you do wake up at night, do not check any technology,” Roban says.
Or, better yet, dig out that old-fashioned alarm clock and keep your phone in the kitchen or living room. It may take some getting used to, but keeping your devices outside the bedroom will lead to less temptation and better sleep quality overall.
2. Overheating at Night
Another common sleep distraction is trying to sleep in a bedroom that's too hot, which can lead to feeling overheated. Research tells us that ambient temperature is one of the most important factors affecting our sleep, so follow a Goldilocks mentality and make sure your room isn’t too hot or too cold, but just right. Roban recommends setting your thermostat to 60–68 degrees Fahrenheit.
The bottom line: Keep it cool. But if your living situation is such that you don't have the ability to adjust the temperature, there are other ways to bring on the chill factor in your bedroom. The Sleep Foundation suggests lowering your bedroom blinds during the day to limit the amount of sunlight streaming in (and heating things up) and swapping incandescent lightbulbs for bulbs that emit less heat, like LEDs.
If you’ve taken steps to make your bedroom cooler but still find yourself overheating to the point of frequent night sweats, it could be time to consult a medical professional who can help identify possible causes.
3. The Other Person in Your Bedroom
If you’ve ever shared a bedroom with a sibling, college roommate, or partner, you know firsthand that their habits can have a direct impact on your sleep quality.
It's not just snoring. “Many people who share a room are disturbed at night by room companions on different sleep schedules doing things in the bedroom that wake them up, like talking on the phone, walking around, or watching television,” Roban says.
There are a number of ways to approach the situation to improve your sleep, from jointly setting “quiet hours” to wearing earplugs and an eye mask to bed.
If it's your romantic partner that's disturbing your peace, you may consider separate sleeping quarters, also known as a sleep divorce (don’t worry, it’s less drastic than it sounds).
“With a sleep divorce, you share a bed for relaxing and intimacy before sleep, but then retreat to your own sleep environments,” Roban explains, adding that sleep divorces are becoming more common as more and more people begin to understand the importance of sleep to mental and physical health.
4. Needing Frequent Bathroom Breaks
Pulling yourself out of dreamland, peeling your eyes open, and groggily stomping to the bathroom is just plain bothersome. If this sounds like you, it’s worth taking a look at your daytime habits. Do you drink a lot of caffeine throughout the day or like a nightcap before hitting the hay? Do you collapse into bed without first using the restroom, only to wake up a few hours later because you have to go?
To avoid this sleep distraction, the National Association for Continence recommends avoiding excessive fluid intake four to six hours before sleep, ditching caffeine after the morning hours and alcohol late at night, and emptying your bladder just before going to sleep.
If limiting fluids and going to the bathroom right before bedtime don’t seem to help, consult your doctor. Frequent nighttime urination, known as nocturia, may be related to your habits, but it could also be linked to an underlying health condition.
5. Your Pets
Allowing your pet to sleep in bed with you may offer a sense of comfort and security, but all of that extra cuddle time comes at a cost. Our pets are loveable, but they can also be loud, fidgety, or needy throughout the night. A 2018 study suggests that people who keep an active dog in bed with them may be more than four times as likely to be awakened at night.
Admittedly, it may be difficult to transition a pet who has grown accustomed to sleeping in your bed to spending the night on their own. If you’re keen on co-sleeping with your pet, the Sleep Foundation recommends getting a mattress that's large enough to comfortably accommodate all parties, keeping a consistent bedtime routine to regulate both your and your pet’s circadian rhythms, and walking your pet before bed to allow them to go to the bathroom and burn off any extra energy that could keep them up.
If you're willing to try getting your pet to sleep on their own on the floor or outside the bedroom, the American Kennel Club recommends crate-training your pet or elevating their bed to a similar height as your own. That way they can continue surveying the room at the same angle to which they've grown accustomed and are less likely to be a sleep distraction to you.
6. Your Kids
“When children don't sleep well, neither do parents,” Roban says. “Sleep is critical for the physical, emotional, and behavioral health of everyone in the family. We all need healthy sleep to survive and to thrive in life.”
It’s essential to teach children healthy sleep habits from a young age—everything from the importance of consistent sleep schedules and routines to how to self-soothe and fall back asleep if they wake up in the night.
A 2017 systematic review conducted by Canadian researchers suggests that practices like setting a regular bedtime, reading before bed, limiting technology use during evening hours, and creating a quiet bedroom environment may be great ways to improve your child’s sleep quality and overall sleep hygiene—and ultimately, your own.
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