The Bedtime Schedule A Sleep Doctor Follows Every Single Night
I was a sleepwalker as a child, to the point where I would try to leave my house in the middle of the night and set the house alarm off, startling my family. I had moments when I was scared to go to bed since I didn't know what I would do in my sleep, but I eventually outgrew sleepwalking as I became a teen (which is common for many people).
Ever since then, I've tried to make sleep a priority for much of my life, and I focus on it in my professional career too. I've pretty much been a good sleeper—but I'm not perfect by any means. One of my big issues with how sleep is portrayed in our current culture is the idea of perfection, that you "need" to get optimal sleep quality and duration every single night. But the reality is that this is not possible for the vast majority of people. There's variation from night to night, and that's normal.
I sleep well most nights, but once or twice a week, I have some trouble with an early morning awakening or awakening in the middle of the night—often due to hot flashes from being in perimenopause or my 7-year-old coming into my room after a nightmare. When I haven't slept as much, I notice my fuse is much shorter and I'm quick to react to those I love the most. As someone who has severe Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), I also am keenly aware of how important sleep is in managing my symptoms.
All in all, sleep is grounding for me. I aim for five nights a week (at least) where I'm content with my sleep, which helps reduce the idea of perfection. If I get those five nights a week of good sleep, I'm happy.
- Average hours I sleep a night: 8 hours a night (though sometimes a little less or a little more)
- Ideal bedtime: 9:30 p.m. (sometimes earlier than my almost 13-year-old!)
- Ideal wake-up time: 5:30 a.m.
- Nightstand essentials: My old-school Sony Dream Machine digital alarm clock that I've had since high school, lip balm, my decaf hot cinnamon tea, a few magazines or a book, a picture of my kids and husband, a lamp
- Favorite place I've ever slept: I grew up in Rhode Island, and my family all still lives there. We've had boats in my family for most of my life, and the best naps I ever get are on my parents' boat when it is tied to the dock. Gentle rocking movement, fresh air, and quiet. Almost feels as if I'm being quietly rocked to sleep. I have no interest in a waterbed for myself, but I kind of see the appeal.
- Sleep bad habit: Sometimes I'll have a glass (or two) of wine when out with friends on the weekends, and it is right before bedtime. And sometimes I'll watch my phone before bed (rare, but it happens when I get sucked into shows like Great British Bakeoff or The Gilded Age.)
- Caffeine consumption: 1-2 cups of light roast coffee in the morning
- How I track my sleep: I don't! I don't think it adds anything to my sleep that I don't already know.
- The last product or habit that changed my sleep for the better: I go to sleep with socks on, it helps me to keep the room cooler to enhance sleep without my feet freezing. Then I take the socks off in the middle of the night if I get too warm with them on.
I've been a big believer in a solid, routine wake-up time for decades, well before it became the popular thing we all talk about now. Unless I'm out for some reason with friends or at a concert or something, I follow this routine on weekdays and weekends.
5:30 a.m.: Wake up with my old-school Sony Dream Machine digital alarm clock (though my body clock is so well set now that I pretty much routinely awaken at that time without even needing an alarm). Get into my workout clothing that I put out on the edge of my bathtub the night before.
5:45 a.m.: Depending on the day and if I'm training for a specific marathon, I'll have a prescribed workout from my run coach. Right now, since I'm not training for any marathons for a while, I'm mixing it up. I go to my basement (which is brightly lit) and either run on my treadmill, do a spin class, lift heavy weights, or do a combination of the three. If it is a rest day, I'll go downstairs and slowly make coffee and potentially walk easily on the treadmill or do an easy yoga/stretch for a short, active recovery to help with mobility.
6:45 a.m.: Finish my workout, put my kids' breakfast out (oftentimes just overnight oats—super easy), and hop in the shower fast.
7 a.m.: Finish shower (I get ready quick!) and do a short, two-minute morning mindfulness routine while my kids are waking up. I've been doing this mindfulness meditation for at least 10 years. I look out the window and observe and describe what I see. That's it, super-grounding for me before the frantic morning is about to start.
Then, the kids go to school and I start my workday. I make sure to get lots of light during the day since it helps set the body's natural circadian clock. I also drink water routinely (I use a huge 40-ounce jug and fill it up twice a day) and try to take a quick stretch/walk break at some points between patients.
6:15 p.m.: Dinner at home (sometimes this gets shifted a bit with after-school activities, but we tend to eat early).
7:15 p.m.: I get my daughter (6 years old) into the shower and ready for bed. She's asleep by 7:45. My almost 13-year-old son doesn't need any help from me anymore (awww!) and goes to bed on his own, except he gives us his phone at 9 p.m. and all electronics are off for him at that time.
7:45 p.m.: I finish up any work and cleaning and prioritize what I must get done for tomorrow versus what can wait. I do all this with the TV on so I can watch something as well. Sometimes I just watch TV or scroll on my phone.
8:45 / 9 p.m.: Go upstairs and get washed up/changed for bed. I'm a stickler about a good skin care routine and also find it super relaxing.
9 to 9:30 p.m.: I do some stretching on the floor (I do a lot of the Peloton stretch videos but have memorized them now), then get in bed and read for about 15 minutes. Lights out when I'm sleepy, around 9:30 p.m. Sometimes my husband comes to bed with me; sometimes he's up later. We have different body clocks—he's more of a night owl, and I'm an early bird.
Rinse and repeat.
Shelby Harris, PsyD, DBSM is a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist in private practice in NY. She is board certified in Behavioral Sleep Medicine and treats a wide variety of sleep, anxiety and depression issues using evidence-based, non-medication treatments. Her self-help book, The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia: Get a Good Night’s Sleep Without Relying on Medication was published in 2019. In addition to her clinical practice, Dr. Harris is the Director of Sleep Health at Sleepopolis.
Before going into private practice, she was the longstanding director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center. She is a Clinical Associate Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in NYC.
Dr. Harris has been an invited columnist for the New York Times “Consults Blog,” and is frequently quoted in the media, including the New Yorker, Washington Post. She has appeared on the Today Show, Good Morning America and CBS Mornings.
Dr. Harris can also be found on Instagram at @SleepDocShelby where she provides evidence-based information about sleep wellness and sleep disorders.