A hard day has just ended, and all you want is to lie down and get a good night's sleep. But, for whatever reason, sleep never seems to come. It usually takes some time to fall asleep at night—this interval between closing your eyes and actually sleeping is known as sleep latency.
Taking too long to start dreaming can become inconvenient or even life-altering if the problem becomes recurring. The longer it takes to fall asleep, for example, the more impaired your night rest will be, and the less rested you will be to face the next day.
To prevent it, you need to understand what's going on inside the body and mind and adopt some practices to ensure a peaceful night's sleep.
In short, sleep onset latency is the time it takes you to fall asleep after lying in bed at night, turning off the light, and closing your eyes. A temporary source of anxiety (if you have an important meeting the next day, for example) can make your sleep take longer to arrive.
While this may not be a problem if it happens every now and then, it can become a chronic issue if not analyzed carefully.
There are several triggering factors for sleep to come too fast or too slowly. In addition to anxiety, behavioral disorders or stress impair your sleep. Sudden lifestyle changes—such as moving to a new home or losing a job—can also influence your time spent awake as you end up taking your worries to bed. Another common cause is poor sleep hygiene, for example, not maintaining a consistent bedtime.
The symptoms appear the following day in the form of daytime fatigue and drowsiness, loss of concentration, and irritability. If the difficulty in sleeping lasts for days, it can develop into more serious symptoms, such as sleep deprivation.
Unless you are extremely tired, it's not customary to lie in bed and sleep automatically. It usually takes some time, and this is normal.
An exam called the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) measures how quickly you fall asleep in a quiet environment during the day. It's the standard tool for diagnosing disorders such as narcolepsy and insomnia. The test consists of five naps separated by two-hour intervals, and a doctor measures how long it takes you to fall asleep with each nap.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), it's normal for an adult to take between 10 and 20 minutes to fall asleep after bedtime. But if your sleep latency is longer, it can be a sign that your body is trying to communicate that something is wrong.
When sleep takes an hour or more to come, you may have insomnia. Another frequent cause of sleeplessness is that your body's internal clock is out of tune. This can happen because of jetlag, excessive consumption of coffee or energy drinks, and even a heavy meal just before going to bed.
There are different ways to reduce your sleep latency and get to sleep more quickly without sleep aids. They involve better sleep hygiene and some changes to your lifestyle habits.
It has become common in modern life to bring screens to bed. It can be a laptop, a TV in the bedroom, a tablet to read e-books, or simply a smartphone to catch up on the news. The problem is that these screens' artificial lighting (known as blue light) interferes with sleep quality.
Experts recommend that you avoid overusing these devices in bed. As an additional tip, try dimming the lights in your house for 30 minutes before bedtime or turn off the room's main light to use a lamp, for example. This way, you send a message to the body that it's time to go to sleep.
Sleeping with a full stomach contributes to poor sleep quality. Instead of lying relaxed, your digestive system will have to work overtime to digest all the food. As a rule, avoid heavy meals before bedtime. Eat at least three hours before going to bed to ensure proper digestion. Avoid carbohydrates and substances such as nicotine, alcohol, and especially caffeine, as their stimulating effects can result in a sleepless night.
Don't take problems or anxieties to bed. If you have difficulty "turning off," you can resort to different relaxation techniques: a massage just before bedtime, a hot bath, or listening to quiet, relaxing music.
There are also some simple breathing exercises that work on the nervous system, regulating heart rate and muscle tension. This is achieved through slow, deep breaths and requires nothing more than a bit of concentration.
A good night's sleep requires a calming environment. Avoid bright colors or an excess of things in your bedroom, which can stimulate your brain and make it difficult to rest. Make sure the room is warm and the pillowcases and sheets are new and clean.
If none of this works, try using soothing scents (such as lavender essential oils) and weighted blankets, which are heavier and can make you feel relaxed and safe.
Perhaps the cause of your sleep problems is simpler than it looks: it's time to change your mattress. Experts recommend that you change your mattress every six to eight years. But if the model you are using doesn't feel comfortable right now, don't wait.
Sleeping well is vital to maintaining your physical and mental health. Keeping an eye on your sleep onset latency can help determine whether you are too tired (falling asleep too quickly) or not ready to sleep at all.
The most common side effects of inadequate or unsatisfactory sleep are mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and physical and mental fatigue. Many factors determine how long it takes to fall asleep. The usual is between 10 and 20 minutes after going to bed. Less or more than that may be the first sign of a problem.
These practical tips can help you sleep better, but maybe it's time to change your mattress. If none of this works, however, do not delay looking for a counselor or sleep specialist.