Learn to cope with nighttime disruptions―no pills required.
If Noise Keeps You Awake
Add white noise. “Background noise is good for two reasons,” said Dr. David Neubauer, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center, in Baltimore. “It helps block outside noises, like road-repair workers and your neighbor’s stereo. Beyond that, psychologically, it’s soothing.” A constant stream of low sound or a variety of recognizable ones―ocean waves, rain, summer crickets―can keep sudden noises from waking you up. Plus, some people find the sounds themselves calming.
Try: Fans, window air conditioners, or anything else that drones continuously. A sound machine is ideal if you don’t want to run a fan or an air conditioner all night and if you’d rather hear chirps, croaks, or rushing water.
Play music or talk radio. It’s important to use a device with a timer so the noise shuts off within an hour or so and doesn’t wake you later, during lighter phases of sleep, said James B. Maas, a professor of psychology at Cornell University and a coauthor of Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance ($14, barnesandnoble.com).
Plug your ears. Earplugs made of soft foam or moldable silicone, which conform to the shape of the outer ear canal, are inexpensive and easy to use. You can still hear, even well enough to have a conversation, but sound is muffled and unlikely to wake you.
Try: Super Leight Pre-Shaped Foam Ear Plugs or Mack’s Safe Sound Soft Foam Earplugs ($4 for 10 pairs at drugstores). Roll a plug between your fingers until it’s small enough to slip gently into the outer ear canal; it will slowly expand to fill the space.
If Light Keeps You Awake
Use low light. “Limiting your light exposure in the evening tends to transition you into sleep,” said Dr. Helene Emsellem, an associate clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University and the director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. And keeping yourself in darkness all night helps you stay asleep. If you read in bed before sleeping, use a low-power book light rather than a bright bedside lamp to encourage your brain's shift to sleep. “I recommend the kind that clips onto books,” Emsellem said.
Try: The “Itty Bitty” Book Light, which plugs into a wall and attaches to your book (see Sleep Aids That Diminish Light). It also comes with a battery pack.
Block LED glow. Light is often a bigger issue than many people realize. Even the dim red or green LED light from a digital alarm clock can be annoying when you’re asleep or trying to fall asleep. “If you have a clock with an LED dial, you should turn it around so that the light, however dim, doesn’t get through your eyelids and interrupt sleep,” said Maas. Turning the clock will also keep you from checking the time whenever you wake up―thereby raising your anxiety about the sleep you’re losing.
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Seal off windows. If your bedroom gets early-morning sun or there’s a streetlight right outside, Maas said, “the best thing you can do is get darkening drapes or blackout shades.”
Try: Shades made of nonwoven polyester, which can keep out virtually all outdoor light if they’re well fitted to the windows. Levolor offers a collection of blackout shades called Evening Star, available in 12 colors (prices vary depending on size, levolor.com for store locations).
Cover your eyes. Eye masks work, especially if they’re big enough to cover the eyes completely. But people who toss and turn a lot may have trouble keeping them in place, and very light sleepers may be disturbed by having something tied to their heads, said Dr. Robert Ballard, director of the sleep center at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center, in Denver. Soft cloth (terry or fleece) on the side that touches your face will make the mask comfortable and stable, and extra material around the nose bridge will close the pathways where ambient light might sneak through. Wash your mask once a week and it can last for year.
Try: The fleecy Dreamaway Fold-Up Mask from Dream Essentials (see Sleep Aids That Diminish Light), which is comfortable and blocks out light better than any of the other masks we tested. But if you hate the idea of fleece right next to your face (it can be hot in the summer), choose the 40 Blinks Sleep Mask ($13, bucky.com).
If You Can’t Relax
Listen to soft music. Background music has been shown to help improve sleep. In one recent study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, senior citizens in Taiwan who had difficulty sleeping listened to calming music for 45 minutes before bedtime. They subsequently slept significantly longer and more deeply than those who didn’t hear the music.
Try: Whatever music you find soothing and relaxing. The Taiwan study used various selections, including harp music by Georgia Kelly, quiet jazz by Paul Desmond, and synthesized sounds by Steven Halpern.
Sip warm drinks. Chamomile tea works for many people, as does hot milk. “Some teas have mild soporific effects,” said Emsellem. “When you warm milk, it releases tryptophan,” an amino acid used by the body to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter believed to promote sleep. “But over time the body can develop an immunity to tryptophan,” she added, “and its sleep-promoting properties dissipate.” Some doctors suspect the power of warm drinks resides largely in the ritual of sipping them. “Biologically, we can’t find much evidence for these drinks,” Maas said. “But psychologically, if they make people relax and reduce stress, they work.”
Try: Warm milk, caffeine-free herbal tea, or hot water with lemon and honey. These drinks may help get your body ready for rest.
Breathe soothing scents. Lavender, in particular, is a scent that is said to help lull the body to sleep. But no scientific evidence supports this claim, so experts neither recommend nor discourage it. “It’s like 300-thread-count sheets,” Neubauer said. “If you believe it works, it will.”
Try: Anything that relaxes you before bedtime―a gentle scent or a nice, warm bath. Or combine them by adding a drop of lavender oil, like Divine Calm from the Body Shop ($20, thebodyshop.com) or from Purple Haze Lavender Farm (see Calming Sleep Aid) to your bath.