If you having sleep problems, one of the worst things you can do is to increase the amount of time you are are spending in bed. It sounds counter-intuitive, but to help improve your sleep, the science has shown that you actually need to restrict the amount of time you are spending in bed, not increase it.
What is Sleep Restriction Therapy?
Sleep restriction Therapy (SRT) is a practice where you deliberately reduce the amount of time spent in bed to ensure that when you do go to bed at night, you really are tired. This should result in you falling asleep quicker, staying in a deep sleep for longer and waking up less frequently during the night.
The theory behind Sleep Restriction Therapy
The theory behind sleep restriction therapy is that it breaks down the negative associations in your brain between bed and having a bad night’s sleep. Many people with insomnia go to bed and then spend hours lying awake worrying that they should be asleep, and get increasingly frustrated that they can’t get to sleep. Going to bed, whether consciously or unconsciously, then gets associated with a bad night’s sleep, and the sufferer goes to bed dreading the time they will spend lying awake once there.
Sleep Restriction Therapy essentially breaks this cycle, as when a person first practices SRT, they go to bed tired/ sleep deprived, which allows them to fall asleep more readily and leads to a deeper sleep. Getting this good night’s sleep then challenges the association between bed and a bad night’s sleep. This eventually translates into a mindset where going to bed is no longer associated with a bad night’s sleep.
How do I practice Sleep Restriction Therapy?
First of all, you need to plan how many hours you are going spend in bed for the next week – i.e. by how much you are going to restrict your sleep window.
Let’s assume you currently go to bed at 11pm and get out of bed at 7am. But, though you lie in bed for eight hours, your tracker shows that you only sleep, on average, for six hours, giving you a sleep efficiency of 75%, which is low (ideally you want this up around 85%).
Having established that you sleep for six hours, for the next week you are going to spend just six hours in bed each night. You will get up at the same time every morning, i.e. at 7am. But instead of going to bed at 11pm, you are going to be going to bed at 1am. (Similarly, if you have found that you are only asleep for five and a half hours, then for the next week you are going to spend just five and a half hours in bed; and so you will go to bed at 1.30am.)
The four main rules, if you decide to try SRT, are:
- Do not cut your time in bed to below five hours.
- Stick to it rigorously.
- Do not lie down, nap or snooze during the day and get your family to wake you if you do.
- Do not drive or use machinery if you experience serious daytime sleepiness.
SRT is extremely effective but it is a challenge. Initially, during the day, you may feel sleepier and more irritable, so you do have to be very careful about driving or working machinery. Staying up late at night when you want to be asleep is also quite boring. However, the good news is that it doesn’t last for long and it really does work.
How long do I do it for?
SRT may radically improve your sleep in a couple of weeks, or it may take up to 8 weeks to be fully effective. Basically, as your sleep efficiency improves you increase the amount of time you spend in bed until you feel you are getting sufficient sleep.
The general rule of thumb is that if you find you are getting to sleep efficiency of 85% or more for at least a couple of nights in a row, then you can increase your time in bed/ move your bedtime to 20 minutes earlier. You then keep repeating this process until you feel that you are getting not only enough sleep, but enough good-quality sleep.
Is SRT for everyone?
No, SRT is not for everyone. If you think you might have a significant health problem, or a sleep disorder such as sleep apnoea, consult your doctor before starting on SRT. SRT should not be tried by pregnant women or young children.