Advances: Medical News for Patients

How to Sleep Like a Baby During Winter’s Long Nights

woman lying in bed sleeping

I’m so good at sleeping I can do it with my eyes closed – so the saying goes.  Unfortunately, not everyone is good at sleeping or falling asleep and staying asleep, making for a very long night.

People develop their sleeping styles that can compromise their daily functioning, both physically and mentally. Often, a night owl who stays awake until the wee hours can’t get out of bed the next morning.  Others, whose eyes are “snapping shut” just before bedtime, find themselves wide awake when they finally hit the sack. 

“Each person’s sleep schedule is dictated by what is known as their circadian rhythms,” says Dr. Deborah Cappell, Medical Director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville. “The circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock that is attuned to the 24-hour cycle of day and night. It is controlled by the brain and is constantly being reset based on light exposure, exercise, and medications. Certain hormones, body temperature, and state of wakefulness are also linked to the circadian rhythm of the body.”

Despite these physical and environmental cues, sometimes those internal clocks do not work as they should, particularly as the seasons shift. “The longer nights and shorter daylight can change the light cues in the brain, leading to confusion,” says Dr. Cappell. “The reduced morning light can make getting up and becoming alert more difficult. It can cause a shift in a person’s sleep schedule to staying up later. This can be mitigated by good sleep hygiene (sticking to a routine) and avoiding nighttime artificial light and screen exposure. Allowing time for quality sleep (ideally around 7.5-8 hours a day for adults) helps reduce some of these effects.”

Seven tips for resetting your internal clock – the key to a good night’s sleep

  1. Establish consistency: Try to go to bed and wake up around the same times each day so that you can establish a consistent sleep schedule.
  2. Think low light at night: Medical research shows that exposure to evening light shifts your body clock to a later schedule. When possible, keep your surroundings dim at night.
  3. Exercise daily: Vigorous exercise is best, but even light exercise is better than no activity. Try not to exercise too close to bedtime.
  4. Plan a calming bedtime routine: This might include a warm bath and relaxing music. A comfortable bed helps, as does a dark room and a moderately cool temperature.
  5. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy meals in the evening. Alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine can disrupt sleep. Eating big or spicy meals can cause discomfort from indigestion that can make it hard to sleep. Avoid eating large meals for two to three hours before bedtime.
  6. Relax before going to bed: A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime conducted away from bright lights helps begin the “winding down” process, making it easier to slip into a sound sleep once you go to bed.
  7. Get a checkup:  See a doctor to check if your lack of sleep results from underlying physical conditions.

“Getting enough sleep is important for people of all ages and should not be taken for granted. It is essential for a healthy mind and body,” advises Dr. Cappell.

To learn more about sleep disorders and how to get help, visit the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital,

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