Get Better Sleep by Going to Bed Only When You're Tired

After carefully considering the difference between sleepiness and fatigue, you can now make an important choice—go to bed only when sleepy. Among people who suffer from difficulty falling asleep, a common occurrence as part of insomnia, this can be a life-changing decision. It also may defy common practice.

man asleep in bed
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Fighting Sleep Cues

In early life, there is no decision made about when to go to sleep. A sleepy child is soon asleep. When the desire for sleep comes, no matter the timing, it is quickly indulged.

As people get older, sleep becomes complicated by behaviors. You may choose to stay awake, even fight sleepiness, to pursue pastimes. Alternatively, if you have trouble sleeping and feel like you need more sleep, you may go to bed early. You may stop listening to your body's natural cues.

Sleepiness or drowsiness is a cue to get ready to sleep. You should naturally prepare yourself by settling down into bed. Yoou make ourselves comfortable and, if everything goes to plan, you are soon asleep.

In contrast, other descriptions of how you feel—fatigue, tiredness, and exhaustion—may not reflect a desire for sleep if they do not promptly proceed into sleep.

If you crawl into bed feeling fatigued, but not sleepy, this may not result in sleep. Instead, you may be setting yourself up for insomnia.

People with insomnia often complain of feeling fatigued or tired, but if given the opportunity to sleep, they will struggle mightily. Insomniacs cannot routinely take naps, for instance. If they lie down to rest in the afternoon, they will lie there awake.

Insomnia is often described as feeling "tired but wired." Sleep is desperately wanted, but opportunities to sleep are corrupted by wakefulness.

What Happens When You're Not Sleepy

Let's imagine a common scenario that occurs with insomnia and how someone might end up going to bed when they don't feel sleepy. Insomnia may be provoked by a stressful situation, but it is perpetuated by the resulting changes that are made around sleep.

Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, or sleep that is not refreshing (in the absence of another sleep disorder). Sleep may become fragmented due to anxiety, with normal awakenings stretching into prolonged wakefulness during the night.

By spending several hours awake in the night, it may seem natural to extend the time in bed. Rather than going to bed at 11 p.m. and getting up at 7 a.m., a person with insomnia may go to bed at 10 p.m. or even 9 p.m.

In an effort to get more sleep, the time spent in bed is lengthened. However, something inadvertent has happened—this person may now be going to bed when they are less sleepy.

There are two major contributors to the ability to sleep: Homeostatic sleep drive and circadian rhythm. The sleep drive is the desire for sleep that builds throughout the day; the longer a person stays awake, the sleepier they become.

The circadian timing relates to when we should naturally be awake and asleep, and for humans sleep should occur overnight. Nocturnal creatures, on the other hand, should be sleeping in the day and awake at night.

By going to bed one or two hours early, there is less drive to sleep and the timing may be off. As a result, this insomniac may go to bed feeling less sleepy.

As a result, there is a diminished ability to sleep. It would not be unexpected for this person to now have a problem lying awake at the start of the night.

By going to bed before sleepiness or drowsiness has developed, the ability to sleep is likewise lost. Similarly, lying awake for prolonged periods in the morning can be detrimental. Even short periods of sleep will diminish the sleep drive and could affect the circadian rhythm.

Therefore, train yourself to go to bed when you are feeling sleepy, not because the clock says it is time to sleep or because you are fatigued. You will find that you fall asleep more easily and sleep better through the night. To help yourself feel more sleepy, you can also work on creating a relaxing routine before bed.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Sleep Foundation. Excessive sleepiness.

  2. Healthy Sleep, Harvard Medical School. The drive to sleep and our internal clock.

  3. National Sleep Foundation. Insomnia.

  4. The American Institute of Stress. Get rid of sleep anxiety and insomnia: Your guide to a better night’s rest.

  5. Division of Sleep Medicine Harvard Medical School. The drive to sleep and our internal clock.

  6. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. Insomnia: Restoring restful sleep.

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.