When Is the Best Time to Sleep? How to Calculate Your Perfect Bedtime Using Your Body’s Clock

One expert explains why your wake-up time should dictate when you go to sleep, not the other way around.

when is the best time to go to sleep

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In the past year, most of our sleep habits have suffered a blow — after all, nearly all of our routines were disrupted and upended in 2020 due to the pandemic. For many, going to bed at a reasonable hour has been increasingly difficult; whether it’s due to the stress of an overwhelming day, or the glow of a phone while you’re doomscrolling, falling asleep every night isn’t always a given. And due to a change in routine, those who have abandoned or reimagined their regular weekly schedules might wonder — is there a magic hour at which I should head to bed for the best chances at falling asleep, and enjoying a good night’s rest?

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Despite all the advice we have available for getting to sleep faster or improving sleep hygiene, the answer isn’t the same for everyone. The best time to go to sleep is more closely aligned with how much sleep your body is enjoying every night. Currently, experts at the National Sleep Foundation suggest that adults sleep between seven and nine hours each night, but that the acceptable range can extend towards 10 hours and as few as six hours on a daily basis. But the perfect amount of sleep isn’t always at the top of this range, explains Jade Wu, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. “You won’t automatically have better sleep if you aim for 10 hours every night, that’s not how it works. If you only need seven, but you’re trying to sleep nine hours, it’s going to actually backfire and you’ll get frustrated… which, ironically, will decrease your sleep quality, making your sleep worse compared to as if you just tried to get seven hours of sleep.”

Believe it or not, the real key to understanding the perfect time to get into bed is more aligned with what time you need to be up in the morning. Think of it this way: Rather than strive for the same bedtime every night, you should focus on waking up every morning around the same time if at all possible. What about weekends, you might ask? Sticking to an hour or so within your usual wake-up time on weekends is best, Dr. Wu says, as it can help you skip grogginess on weekdays.

Keeping your wake-up time consistent — and then using it to formulate your ideal bedtime — may be better than going to sleep every night at the same time with various wake-up calls. A study conducted by researchers at Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital suggests that a consistent wake-up time, with the same amount of sleep per night, led to more productivity in student’s lives. Determining when you need to be awake and working through a morning routine, then, is important to establish a bedtime, and your body will adjust over time. “The more consistent you are, the more easily your brain will catch up on this pattern and be able to tell you when you should go to bed.”

When is the best time to sleep?

After you’ve settled on your ideal wake-up time, it’s time to start establishing a habit of heading to bed at a time when you’ll be able to get enough sleep, per recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation. Use the below chart to help establish when you should get into bed:

when is the best time to go to sleep rules for every ageDesign: Laura Formisano

Let’s say you’re a 30-year-old currently working from home, but enjoy to workout before the day begins, and you’re dead set to get out of bed by 7 a.m. You’ll need to fall asleep no later than 1 a.m., but should give yourself the opportunity to get in bed by 10 p.m. so that you may get closer to 9 hours if you need it. Over time, your body will dictate when you feel sleepy and ready for bed if you continue to wake up at 7 a.m., especially if you are working on sleep hygiene (like using these apps!).

“After you’ve established that routine, it becomes simple: Go to bed when you feel sleepy. But let yourself have the opportunities to feel sleepy, right?” Wu says, adding that you should actively unplug from television, video games, or your phone, and turn to other things like reading (or even simply closing your eyes!). “Put away work and school and homework and just let yourself sort-of wind down in the evening in advance of your newly established bedtime, and then your body will tell you when you get sleepy.”

The bottom line:

Calculating your own individual window for heading to bed is important, but you should only do so after you’ve settled on a routine wake-up time during the week (and one that you can loosely stick to on the weekends). Wu, a Vanderbilt sleep expert who has been troubleshooting sleep routines for many years, says it’s important to have a general bedtime at first, but not to force a bedtime if it doesn’t feel natural — just focus on getting up at your desired hour. It’ll take time before your body gets accustomed to your new wake-up routine. You’ll soon find yourself feeling naturally tired and ready to lay your head on a pillow at a more stagnant time each night.

Recent research suggests that maintaining a sleep routine is important for productivity and sleep quality, but there’s other research that suggests getting to sleep earlier may also be important. A 2014 study, for example, suggests that those who are “evening” owls (those who go to bed later in the night or early morning) had more negative thoughts and feelings the next day compared to those who went to sleep earlier.

More research is needed to conclude if going to sleep earlier in the evening can provide tangible sleep benefits in the long run. But one thing’s for sure: Keeping a consistent wake up “is really important to help our circadian rhythms stay consistent,” Wu explains. The more stable your routine is, the better your body’s internal clock will be, and the likelier everything else will fall into place. “The easiest way to help your body and sleep is to keep things steady — that’s the one thing you can behaviorally control. You can’t control your metabolism, right? But you can decide when your boots hit the ground in the morning, and that’s really important.”

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