From relaxation techniques to nutritional tips, here’s what you can do before & after going to bed for a less disturbed slumber

Nothing feels as good as having had a great night’s sleep. You wake up, feeling revived and refreshed, ready to take on the day. And it’s a feeling we all deserve.

Sadly, for many of us, it’s just not the reality, with a whopping one in five people in the UK suffering from too little sleep. Off the back of this? It’s led to the rise of the ‘3am club’ – unfortunately not the latest after party spot, but rather an army of bleary eyed individuals who can be found turning to social media to post their middle-of-the-night-musings.

From the tired parent juggling a grizzling baby to the stressed-out teen dealing with looming exams and the employee on the brink of burnout, its membership spans all ages. And, while the idea of an online community is great for helping us feel less alone, turning to our phones to vent perhaps isn’t among the most helpful things we can do when it comes to regaining control over our sleep habits.

So, what can we do instead? Here, we speak to industry insiders, from sleep experts to nutritionists, sound therapists and meditation maestros, to help us recalibrate our sleep patterns and rediscover our sleeping sweet spots.

How can you prepare for a good night’s sleep?

We’ve all heard that failing to prepare is preparing to fail, but what about when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep? Sleep expert James Wilson, aka The Sleep Geek, believes preparation is everything. Here are his six top tips for getting in the right mindset for rest.

1. Be consistent

When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, consistency is key.

"To fall asleep healthily, we need to ensure we have a consistent wake-up time," says James. "This is because one of the systems that regulates sleep in our body is a type of pressure that starts to build as soon as we wake up." This is called our homeostatic sleep drive.

A good way to think about it?

"Consider it like thirst," says James. "The longer you go without hydration, the thirstier you’ll get. And the longer you go without sleep, the sleepier you’ll become."

Essentially, this means your lie-in at the weekend could be costing you your sleep during the week. If possible, wake up at a consistent time every day and stick to a consistent routine to better reap the benefits. 

2. Work with your body’s natural rhythm

Working out what your body’s natural rhythm is may sound tricky, but according to James, it really isn’t.

"We all have a chronotype (a sleep type) that regulates when we feel sleepy and when we feel awake," says James. "It’s like a continuum, with the early birds at one end and the night owls at the other. Most of us sit somewhere in the middle, with a slight preference one way or the other."

One way to find yours? Take some time to work out an hour-and-a-half window that gives you the best chance of falling asleep. It may take a little trial and error initially, but a good clue is making a note of when you start to feel sleepy.

"For me, it’s between 9.30pm and 11pm," says James. "If I try to go to sleep before this window, I’ll likely feel stressed and, as a result, lie awake for much longer."

3. Have a warm bath or shower

Did you know that a drop in core temperature is an important part of our body’s preparation for bed?

"A warm bath or shower raises our core temperature slightly. It then drops when we get out. It’s this drop that can act as a helpful indicator to the body that it’s time for sleep," explains James. 

4. Wind down before bed

Everything on our to-do list is often done right before we hit the hay, from emptying the dishwasher to preparing our clothes for the next day.

"All this activity means the brain will be more alert, and you may struggle to fall asleep," says James. "Instead, do this at least an hour before bed and try to relax after. Then, when you feel sleepy, you’re more likely to nod straight off."

5. Allow your mind to wander

If you like to indulge in a bit of TV before bed, then you’ll be surprised to know that, while not the best thing for sleep, it may not necessarily be the worst.

According to a recent study in the Journal of Sleep Research, media use in the hour before falling asleep was found to be associated with an earlier bedtime and more total sleep time, as long as it didn’t involve multitasking and was done in bed. That isn’t the green light for us to fall into a midnight TikTok rabbit hole mind you – it has to be kept short and focused, as the longer the duration, the more negatively it’ll impact our sleep.

"Watch something that allows your mind to wander," says James. "Anything familiar, repetitive and easy to watch will help you switch off. Reading is great, too." Steer clear of anything too stimulating or jolting to avoid becoming too alert.

Mind whirring rather than wandering? A pre-bed meditation practice may help.

"Meditation is ideal for removing yourself from the chaos of the day," says Dr Serena Rakha, a health coach and NHS GP. "As our brain is constantly active, it’s normal for thoughts to enter our head when we’re meditating. Allow these thoughts to float away like a balloon. This practice can aid relaxation, preparing us for a good sleep."

Check out Dr Rakha’s top meditation techniques in our guide to relaxation exercises.

6. Pay attention to what you eat and drink

"What you eat and drink is vital for getting a good night’s sleep," says James.

Lauren Windas, nutritionist and naturopath agrees. ‘First, I’d say no caffeine after 2pm as it can really contribute to a restless night. Instead, opt for non-caffeinated alternatives, such as chicory coffee, camomile, lemon and ginger or tulsi tea.

"You should also avoid drinking alcohol two hours before bed as it can suppress production of melatonin, our sleep hormone.

"Finally, I’d recommend eating more tryptophan-rich foods, a type of amino acid (protein) that is converted into melatonin in the body. Opt for poultry, such as turkey and chicken, eggs, peanuts, bananas, tofu, cheese and pumpkin seeds. All of these may contribute to a healthier night’s sleep."

How can you get back to sleep after waking up in the night?

So, you’ve woken up in the middle of the night, now what? Fortunately, our sleep experts say there are a few things that may help – and some may surprise you. 

1. Don’t lie there for more than 15 to 30 minutes

If you often wake up and start to feel agitated by your inability to switch off and the hours of sleep you may be missing out on, know that it’s a common physical response.

"At this point, your body can begin to release stress hormones," says James. "These are designed to keep you awake to deal with any perceived threat. When this happens, get out of bed."

Kathryn Pinkham, insomnia specialist and founder of The Insomnia Clinic, seconds this plan of action. As she says in Boots’ Live Well Panel talk on how to sleep better: "If you’re awake in the middle of the night or you’re just really wound up thinking about tomorrow and stressed you’re not getting enough sleep, as soon as you experience negative emotions or sensations, then you should leave the bed altogether. 

"Go downstairs, put the telly on, read a book – whatever it is you like doing. I don’t go in for this, 'you have to do something really boring like sit in the dark or do the ironing'. I think you’re already suffering, so let yourself off the hook and do something you enjoy and, when you feel sleepy, go back to bed."

This can help reestablish our bed as a place for rest, rather than somewhere where we lie awake for long periods of time. She adds: "It’s really important to keep that connection with your bed strong, so don’t spend too much time in there when you’re not asleep."

Watch the interesting Q&A below for more insights and tips for sleep problems and sleep maintenance.

2. Make use of sound

Once out of bed, utilise sound as this can be an excellent way to get ourselves back into the world of slumber.

"Our hearing is powerful," says James. "If we can relax our hearing, the rest of our body will follow."

Laura Taylor, sound therapy practitioner, agrees, suggesting that sound could be just the key for helping you feel sleepy again. 

"Listening to certain frequencies can be hugely beneficial – sound quite literally has the power to slow down your brainwaves," she says. "This means you can learn to guide yourself naturally into sleep through the multitude of Spotify playlists available, with tracks attuned to different frequencies. Take time to explore which works best for you."

3. Try breathing exercises

The power of deep breathing isn’t to be sniffed at.

"Breathing exercises are an excellent relaxation tool for getting back to sleep," says James. "I particularly like box breathing, a technique where you breathe in and out while you slowly count to four at each stage."

For a box breathing how-to, check out breathing coach Rebecca Dennis’guide.

4. If you sleep next to someone, move away from them

If you’ve woken in the night to find your partner snoring beside you, then you’ll be familiar with the feeling of frustration that follows.

"This helplessness can raise our heart rate and makes it less likely that we’ll fall back to sleep," says James. "Instead, go into another room. You can leave the lights off and put on headphones, only returning to bed when you feel more relaxed."

"Again, meditation might be a useful distraction here’" says Dr Rakha. "Try an app like Calm or Insight Timer and enjoy the calming music or soundscapes."

5. Consider aromatherapy

Scent is known to relax and calm.

Christina Salcedas, head of Education at Aromatherapy Associates, suggests misting your room with a pillow spray if you wake up during the night.

"A quick spritz of Aromatherapy Associates Deep Sleep Mist across your bed linen will fill the air with soothing vetivert, calming camomile and grounding sandalwood, all of which can help contribute to a relaxing atmosphere suited to sleep."

 6. Acceptance

Acceptance. Perhaps the ultimate takeaway, and one that might be particularly helpful to parents who literally cannot get back to sleep – even if they’re desperate to.

"When we lie awake, we’re prone to focusing on how poorly we’ll perform tomorrow," says James.

Instead? Try accepting your situation and reframing the story.

"You might be poor at sleeping, but you’re world class at being tired and you will get through tomorrow," enthuses James. "Why? Because you always do."

Just remembering that can help 'the morning after the night before' be a much easier mountain to climb.