As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Of course, Ben Franklin may be one of the Founding Fathers, but he didn’t have full access to the electricity throughout the night or the entirety of Netflix’s catalog at his fingertips. He wasn’t an exhausted parent who snatches naps in the middle of the day with sleeping toddlers, or a college student pulling all-nighters to get by.
Ultimately, the best time to sleep depends on the person in question.
So, what is the best time to go to sleep? When you’re trying to decide on a bedtime, here are the factors that make a difference.
Your Circadian Rhythm
Let’s start with the science. Our waking and sleeping times, as well as our level of alertness and exhaustion, are defined by our individual circadian rhythms.
Inside our brain’s hypothalamus is a tiny region called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. This region is what allows us to keep our biological clock running on schedule, and it has a roughly 24-hour cycle—though some classic research suggests we’d prefer a period of 25 hours if left to our own devices.
Our SCN regulates our waking and sleeping moments through hormones, and it bases this on the cycle of natural sunlight and darkness. When we’re exposed to sunlight, our melatonin—the hormone that makes us tired—is suppressed. At nighttime, the brain produces it more heavily.
When you’re trying to find the best time to go to sleep, then, it’s important to take this “internal clock” into account.
Going to bed too early, when your body isn’t producing enough melatonin to help you sleep, will get you nowhere. You might even do a little extra damage, as your inability to fall asleep can make you anxious, stressed, or annoyed. These emotional responses can keep the brain humming and awake, long past the time you would normally start to feel tired.
Instead, it’s often best to hit the hay once you start to feel sleepy.
Your circadian rhythms will dictate when that moment comes, whether you’re a “night owl” or “morning bird”—or something else entirely.
Of course, this gets much harder when you work irregular schedules, when you expose yourself to blue light from your devices after dark, or when you’re suffering from jet lag. Confusing your circadian rhythm can make it difficult to feel sleepy at appropriate times. If that’s the case for you, jump to the next few bedtime factors.
In general, experts recommend that most healthy adults get at least 7 hours of sleep to function well throughout the day. However, the National Sleep Foundation has found that your sleep needs will vary as you age, meaning that you might in fact need more or less sleep than this average recommendation:
- Newborns aged 0-3 months: 14-17 hours
- Infants aged 4-11 months: 12-15 hours
- Toddlers aged 1-2 years: 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers aged 3-5 years: 10-13 hours
- School-age children aged 6-13 years: 9-11 hours
- Teenagers aged 14-17 years: 8-10 hours
- Adults aged 18-64: 7-9 hours
- Older adults aged 65 or older: 7-8 hours
The experts also provided recommendations for adjustments to these sleeping schedules that may be appropriate, as long as you’ve discussed your habits with your healthcare provider.
It’s worth noting, of course, that we tend to experience age-related sleep disruptions as we grow older. Fragmented sleep, difficulty falling asleep, and classification as a “light sleeper” are common as we age.
Your Waking Times
If you’ve been considering when to go to sleep, you’ve probably already taken one important factor into account: the time you need to wake up.
Considering your waking time is one of the classic ways to determine when you should be going to sleep. If you now know how much sleep to get based on your age, for example, you might think that you can simply count backward from your waking time to figure out exactly when to go to bed.
However, it’s not so simple.
What we think of as “sleep” isn’t one standard, restful mental process. Sleep occurs in 5-stage cycles that last around 90 minutes. The first four stages move us through non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, occurring from the lightest sleep to very deep sleep. During these stages, our body regulates our immune system, repairs muscle tissue, and forms some of our memories.
During the fifth stage or the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, our muscles are paralyzed as our eyes move rapidly. This stage is associated with dreaming, but researchers also believe that it’s what helps us consolidate information into our long-term memory.
Waking up in the middle of one of the deeper stages of sleep—stages 2-5—can be jarring. It can also disrupt the healing processes your body is carrying out.
As a result, it’s essential to make sure you’re cycling through these critical stages, as waking at the end of a cycle is what helps you feel more refreshed and alert.
Your Ability to Fall Asleep
Estimates suggest that up to 60% of US adults live with chronic insomnia. One category of this disorder is sleep-onset insomnia, which makes it difficult to fall asleep at night.
For most people, it takes 10-20 minutes to nod off at night. For others—insomniac or not—it may take significantly longer.
If you have a hard time falling asleep, you’ll want to budget some extra time into your bedtime.
Knowing how long it takes, of course, can be part of the issue. Sleep tracking apps on your phone, fitness tracker or smartwatch can help you understand how long it takes you to fall asleep on average. You can in turn use this number to dial your bedtime back to an earlier time as appropriate.
Alternatively, you might simply need to find the best position to sleep. Sleeping on your back or side instead of your stomach can keep your spine in an ideal position and help you support your body weight, making you comfortable enough to nod off. Experiment with what works best for you to see if it affects your sleep habits.
Your Ability to Stick to a Schedule
The best sleep schedule is one you can stick to on a daily basis—even weekends. It might be tempting to spend an extra hour or two in bed on your days off, but this habit isn’t ideal if you want to stick to a regular bedtime throughout the rest of the week.
Though it won’t work for those with irregular work schedules, a fixed wake time can actually help reinforce your circadian rhythms, make it easier to fall asleep on time, and keep you alert and attentive throughout the day. So if you’re a chronic snooze-button-pusher who wants a better bedtime schedule, consistency is the way to go! Resist the urge to hit snooze, even for another minute, for best results.
You may even want to try getting into the habit of literally springing out of bed each morning!
What Is the Best Time to Go to Sleep?
Ultimately, the best time to go to sleep depends on all of the factors above. Consider your recommendations based on age, your personal adherence (or lack thereof) to a typical schedule and circadian rhythm, and the sleep cycles you’ll want to get at night.
If you’re not sure about the healthiest time to fall asleep, speaking to your family doctor can help. They may be able to walk you through more personal tips to determine an appropriate bedtime, or to refer you to a sleep specialist if you have additional questions or concerns about your sleep health.
For what it’s worth, the average American adult will go to bed around 11:40 at night, though the best-rested of us will hit the hay around 10:45—nearly a full hour earlier than the average!
The science shows why this works, and why Ben Franklin may have had it right all along. An earlier bedtime can help you better deal with negativity, become more proactive, stay healthier and happier, and even reduce your stress.
Keep that “early to bed” guideline in mind as you determine the right bedtime for you!
Your Next Steps for Sleep Health
Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time wondering, “What is the best time to go to sleep?” (Some of us may even be guilty of searching for this information on our phones long past the time we’re meant to be asleep.)
In the end, an early bedtime combined with a regular waking schedule can work wonders for your sleep health—and for your health overall. Experiment with sleep routines and schedules to find the one that works best for you, and enjoy a good night’s sleep consistently.
If you’re interested in more lifestyle tips to make the most out of your health, check out our other posts!
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