Primary Care

Ask a Doc: How Do I Fall Asleep?

Dr. Eric TenBrock explains how to get the right amount of sleep and how to improve the quality of your sleep.

Nov. 4, 2019 4   min read

Older woman who can't sleep

More than 70 million Americans suffer from sleep-related issues each year, from insomnia and sleep apnea to narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, and many more. How can you ensure you’re getting the right amount of sleep, and what can you do to improve the quality of your sleep? Dr. Eric TenBrock, Medical Director of the Rochester Regional Health Sleep Center at United Memorial Medical Center answers some important sleep-related questions.

How important is sleep?

Sleep provides us with many healing and rejuvenating benefits. During sleep, our bodies flush out toxins and repair DNA, and our memories, decision-making, and problem-solving skills are greatly improved.

Not getting enough sleep impacts your executive functioning, weight management, mood, and immune system, as well as plays a role in depression. “The amount of sleep a person needs varies depending on age ranges and health profiles. For instance, newborns can sleep up to 17 hours in a 24-hour period, while an adult should aim for 7+ hours of continuous sleep.”

CDC recommends the following amount of sleep:

  • Newborn (0 - 3 months): 14 - 17 hours
  • Infant (4 - 12 months): 12 - 16 hours
  • Toddler (1 - 2 years): 11 - 14 hours
  • Preschool (3 - 5 years): 10 - 13 hours
  • School-age (6 - 12 years): 9 - 12 hours
  • Teen (13 - 18 years): 8 - 10 hours
  • Adult (18+): 7+ hours 

I have difficulty falling asleep

If you have difficulty sleeping, Dr. TenBrock recommends that you first start by going to bed when you’re tired and not forcing sleep.

“Some people who have difficulty falling asleep try to get a running start on sleep and go to bed a few hours earlier before they’re tired. If they can’t fall asleep right away, it can disturb the body’s relationship between laying down and sleeping.”

“By going to bed when you’re tired, you’ll increase your chances of falling into a night of healthy sleep.”

My mind races as soon as I lay down

Why does it feel like your mind goes into overdrive as soon as you close your eyes? It’s common for people who have difficulty sleeping to focus on worries like paying bills, making plans, or thinking about their future when they lay in bed with the lights off. This is partly because when you close your eyes, it’s the first time all day that you’re free from distractions.

“I tell my patients: write down a list of items outside of the bedroom that you worry about or that you think too hard about when the lights go out. Write them down every night before bedtime, even if they’re the same items each night.”

This strategy, says Dr. TenBrock, helps purge your mind from the thoughts that prevent you from sleeping and keeps those worries outside of the bedroom.

What else can I do to fall asleep?

Practicing standard sleep hygiene like avoiding alcohol and caffeine before bed, avoiding bright lights, and not exercising too close to bedtime can help you fall asleep. “Consistent bedtime and wake up time are also essential. Sleeping in or taking cat naps during the day are best to be avoided.”

Adjusting to daylight savings time

When the clocks go back to standard time and you get an extra hour of sleep, what you do with that extra hour is important, explains Dr. TenBrock. “Some people use that extra hour for errands. Some people like to exercise and some just lay in bed staring at their phones. I recommend using that extra hour to actually catch up on your sleep!”

Think of that extra hour like a sick day at work. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Take advantage of the extra hour by sleeping and further replenishing your mind and body. Dr. TenBrock recommends using the extra hour to reset your sleep schedule and commit to getting 7+ hours of sleep each night.

“For the first few days after the clocks change, you’ll start to feel tired about an hour earlier than usual. Use this time to go to bed when you’re tired so you can get yourself back on a proper sleep schedule.”

How to create a normal sleep schedule for kids

The right way to wake up

How you wake up is just as important as how you fall asleep. “As soon as you wake up you should get out of bed and be exposed to whatever ambient light there is. This helps prepare your brain for the environment that you’re about to spend the rest of the day in.”

Screen time in bed

“Use your bed for sleeping. It’s not a work station. When you go to bed you should not be on your electronic devices, and when you wake up you should not start using them.” Rochester Regional Health’s Sleep Center treats all 88 defined sleep disorders, from sleep apnea and narcolepsy to insomnia and restless leg syndrome.

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Eric TenBrock, MD