IT’S midnight. It’s a weeknight. It’s time for bed. And I’m absolutely definitely going now. I’ll just refresh my Facebook feed one last time. And check my email. And flick through the channels. Then I’ll go to bed. Except 15 minutes later, I’m still here, postponing the inevitable. And despite the upcoming morning regret, I already know I’ll do it again tomorrow night.
Why do so many of us have an inability to go to bed? And can night owls ever become early birds? To find out more, I spoke to the experts, asked some converts, and tested the theory myself.
First of all, why do we stay up too late? There’s lots written about the addictive quality of screens and box-set binging, but staying up late existed long before smart phones and Netflix. I remember wanting to stay up as a child, and today I’m still that kid, begging to postpone bedtime. Only now there’s no adult voice of reason — that role is mine — and it seems I’m not very responsible.
“Yes, I think the way we were taught as children to go to bed has an impact — I remember from my own childhood, it was almost like a punishment,” says holistic sleep therapist Deirdre O’Connor (deepsleepclinic.com).
“Now, we need our own inner parent. So maybe get your partner to help you, or set an alarm for bedtime — and put it far enough away that you have to get up and turn it off.”
For me, it’s more than an ingrained rebellion against bedtime — after a long day working and looking after kids, I need that hour that’s just for me. Postponing bedtime is about elongating the me-time — once I go to sleep, the very next thing that happens is the alarm clock’s call and the morning rush.
One woman who valued her me-time is Kerry Manning. “I was living in Westport, across the road from a night club — I’m 51 and was pretending I was 31. If someone called me at 10 o’clock and suggested going for a drink, I went. Then I’d write my blog (Fabuliciousfifty.com) till 1 or 2am.” But when Manning moved house, changed job, and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, coping with change made her reassess her sleep habits.
“I put my phone on silent at 9pm every evening and eventually switched my morning alarm off too. I’m reading Ariana Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution — apparently your body will wake up when it’s had sufficient sleep so you shouldn’t be worrying about the alarm in the morning, because if your body needs eight hours sleep it’s about when you go to sleep not when you wake up. Now I go to bed around 9 or 10, and wake up naturally. It’s very freeing to wake up at 6am without the beep of an alarm clock.”
But even knowing how healthy sleep is, for many of us bedtime itself is a chore. The prospect of climbing stairs and brushing teeth isn’t appealing — staying on the couch is just easier.
O’Connor has a tip. “What used to stop me going to bed was thinking ‘Now I have to get up and do all that stuff!’— it felt like such an effort. So I do it earlier when I have the energy — like getting into pyjamas and brushing teeth.”
In the interests of research, I decided that for three nights I’d go to bed at 10.30pm. I generally don’t feel tired during the day, but perhaps there’s a higher plane I know nothing about. Plus I wanted to see — can night owls become morning larks?
Cork woman Louise Murphy did just that, and her path to a sensible sleep time was through music. “I was always a night owl — listening to music and writing — I’d have the headphones on, in bed, listening to heavy metal and rock. I’d be dozing and then this big blaring screech would come on and I’d get the fright of my life and be wide awake again!”
The change came in the form of classical music. “Someone sent me one of Ludvico Einaudi’s songs and I liked it, so I downloaded the album, and listened to it one night going to bed. By the third song I was asleep.”
After that, Louise made a conscious decision to switch from rock to classical, making sleep easier and more inviting. Now, as mum to a toddler, she goes to bed around 10.30 every night. “I still play classical music sometimes but mostly I’m so tired I just fall asleep straight away,” says Louise, who blogs at TatooedLadyWithBaby.com.
But what if you don’t have enough hours in the day and can’t go to bed early? Many self-employed people use night-time to work, as do parents who do crèche collection and play catch-up when the kids are in bed. And lots of us rely on couch-time for personal admin, or simply staying in touch with friends.
Sleep therapist Jean O’Hanlon agrees. “People are so busy these days that night-time is the only time they have to contact friends and family — getting back to that Facebook message or that text.”
O’Hanlon has some suggestions for beating the system. “Being on the laptop or phone will increase your agitation — the blue light rays can create a very alert state, so the melatonin that’s normally produced at night-time isn’t being produced by the brain, and then you want to stay up because you’re not sleepy. So try blue blocker glasses — they’re like sunglasses, but with an orange screen to block the penetration of blue light into the brain,” says O’Hanlon, who uses them herself.
“If you put them on, you’ll start feeling really sleepy within about half an hour to an hour. You can buy them online. A similar option is to download software called F.Lux which changes the background colour of your device as the evening progresses.”
So did my three early nights make a difference? Yes, but for me it was marginal — I was less tired when the alarm clock went off, and then the rest of the day ran as normal. It’s taught me that my usual seven hours per night is plenty, but I need to avoid going overboard — staying up till 1am on a weeknight, binge-watching Orphan Black.
Yes it’s more sensible to go to bed earlier, but so is cutting out cake or coffee — and where’s the fun in that?
Jean O’Hanlon’s telltale signs that you’re staying up too late:
Feeling un-refreshed in the morning.
Having to drag yourself out of bed
Being unable to function until you’ve had your first coffee
Concentration difficulties during the day
Feeling anxious, irritable or more prone to emotional outbursts
Increased hunger, or cravings for sugary foods or caffeine
Weight gain or difficulty losing weight despite good efforts