Generally speaking, most adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night, but the best time to sleep and wake-up varies from person to person. Don’t believe us? Then think about this: do you usually go to bed at the same time as your partner, yet you’re still staring at the ceiling an hour later while they’re sound asleep next to you? Chances are you’re going to be at the bed at the wrong time for your body clock.
But what about snuggle time? We get it. Sometimes there’s nothing more comforting after a tough day than snuggling until you fall asleep. But if your body clock is so different from your partner’s that you could almost be in a different timezone, sleep for one of you is going to suffer, even if you’ve treated yourselves to the best mattress ever made, or painted your bedroom all shades of soothing, sleepy colors.
So the hard truth is, there’s no one singular best time to sleep, but there are ways to figure out a good sleep-wake schedule for you, based on your age, health, sleeping patterns and lifestyle. While some people use sleep calculators to figure out when they should hit the hay to get seven, eight, nine hours sleep, based on an average sleep cycle lasting 90 minutes, these calculators aren’t always reliable.
Trying to sleep at the same time as your partner might not be best
Dr Lindsay Browning, author of Navigating Sleeplessness (opens in new tab), runs a sleep clinic that deals with common and more complex slumber problems, ranging from chronic insomnia to frequent waking. As she explained to us for our feature asking why is sleep important, a lot of our stress around snoozing stems from well-worn sleep myths, including how we all need to get eight hours every night. We don’t. Eight hours just happens to sit in the middle of the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep.
“The problem is, if you’re a person who needs nine hours sleep a night but you’re only getting eight, that adds up to a one-hour sleep loss every single night.” Dr Browning explains. “Or if you’re someone who only needs seven hours a night, but you think you should be getting eight because that’s what everyone says is ‘normal’, then you’ll probably be trying (and failing) to sleep for that extra hour. You may end up thinking you have insomnia.
“And that’s where a lot of couples struggle,” Dr Browning continues. “For example, one person’s sleep needs could be on the lower side, while the other has a higher sleep need. So if you’re both trying to go to sleep at the same time and trying to get the same amount of sleep, you’ll both be unhappy.”
How many hours of sleep do you need, based on age and health?
Different people need different amounts of sleep. For example, if you’re pregnant or recovering from an illness you might need more sleep than usual. But mostly the amount of sleep you need depends on your age, as the CDC’s recommended sleep guidelines for different age groups shows:
- Newborn (0 to 3 months): 14 to 17 hours
- Infant (4 to 12 months): 12 to 16 hours
- Toddler (1 to 2 years): 11 to 14 hours
- Preschool (3 to 5 years): 10 to 13 hours
- School Age (6 to 12 years): 9 to 12 hours
- Teen (13 to 18 years): 8 to 10 hours
- Adult (18 to 60 years): More than 7 hours
- 61–64 years: 7 to 9 hours
- 65 years and older: 7 to 8 hours
The best time to sleep and wake-up: How do sleep calculators work?
Sleep calculators claim to be able to estimate your best time to sleep and wake-up. All you need to do is input when you want to wake up. The sleep calculator will then use this information to work out how many sleep cycles you can fit in during that period of time. This will inform when is the best time for you to fall asleep, and when is the best time for you to wake-up based on the end of your final sleep cycle.
However, some experts claim that sleep calculators are not based on science and are unlikely to work well for everyone because not everyone has the same length of sleep cycles. Sleep calculators don’t consider how long it can take to fall asleep, either, and many don’t account for waking up during the night. What does this mean? Although sleep calculators could provide a handy guide, they’re not guaranteed to work for everyone so shouldn’t be used strictly.
Here’s an example of how to use a sleep calculator to figure out the best time to go to sleep, based on your preferred wake-up time, allowing 15 minutes to fall asleep, and completing five or six 90-minute sleep cycles:
|Wake-up time:||Bedtime for 7.5 hours of sleep (5 sleep cycles):||Bedtime for 9 hours of sleep (6 sleep cycles):|
How to figure out the best time to sleep, based on your sleep needs
Sleep is one of the cornerstones of good health, so you should prioritize your individual slumber needs as much as possible. This isn’t easy for everyone – parents, carers, and those with chronic health issues regularly come up against sleep disruption – but identifying what good sleep feels like to you is the first step.
“When your sleep is healthy, you’re falling asleep relatively quickly (within 20 minutes is ideal).” Dr Browning says. “Waking up for around 10-15 minutes in the night is completely normal, and then waking up around 10-15 minutes before your alarm, and feeling refreshed, are other good indicators that you are getting enough sleep and that you’re going to sleep at the right time.”
One of the keys to figuring out your best time to sleep and wake-up is something called ‘sleep drive’. “This is the sleep equivalent of your need or hunger for food,” explains Dr Browning. “The longer you’ve been awake, the more hungry you’ll be for sleep. Therefore, if you have been awake for a very long time, you’ll be very sleepy because your body will very much need sleep. A very high sleep drive makes it easier to fall asleep.”
To get better insight into your sleep drive, pay attention to how you feel in the evenings. While your partner might be yawning at 9pm, are you? Or is 10pm when your sleep drive hits its peak? Pay attention to how you feel over the next few nights to get a better idea of when is your ideal time to sleep. You might be surprised that it’s earlier or later than what you thought, and you may also find that you have been forcing yourself to try and sleep too early - or stay up way past your natural bedtime.
Sleep cycles: What are the main stages of sleep?
Throughout the night each of us enters different stages of sleep. Most people will go through light sleep, deep sleep and then REM sleep stages throughout the night over the course of (roughly) 90 minutes. This 90-minute period is known as a sleep cycle. It’s typical for people to have five to six of these 90-minute cycles every night, but where you wake in a sleep cycle can determine how groggy or refreshed and alert you feel.
This is why sleep calculators can sometimes help people sleep better. The thinking is that if you wake up toward the end of a sleep cycle you’re likely to feel more refreshed and well-rested than if you wake up in a deep sleep stage (hello, sleep inertia). That’s because each of the sleep stages (one full cycle) are necessary to repair your brain and body while you sleep. Skip some stages and you might feel super-groggy.
If you need a hand waking up a little easier in the mornings, especially during the darker months of the year, you might benefit from using one of the best sunrise alarm clocks. These simulate a natural sunrise in your bedroom, and are very cheerful during winter. They shouldn’t be mistaken for light therapy lamps though, which are used to ease the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Proven tips for better sleep
Using a sleep calculator to work out the best time to go to sleep might help you to sleep for longer and ensure you wake up feeling refreshed, but it isn’t a guarantee. Instead, there are a number of proven steps you can take to get a better night’s sleep too, these include:
- Improve your sleep hygiene and better prepare your home and bedroom for sleep.
- Invest in a bed that’s comfy and supportive. Hot sleepers, try a cooling mattress.
- Choose the best pillows for sleeping in your favorite position.
- Maintain a regular sleep routine by going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and other stimulants in the evening (surprisingly, the half-life of caffeine can last several hours).
Can sleep trackers help you figure out the best time to sleep and wake-up?
You can use sleep tracking apps, like Sleep Cycle, and wearable devices, like the Apple Watch or a fitness tracker from Fitbit, to track your sleep. This includes when you go to sleep and the different stages of sleep you enter throughout the night, with the data used to generate a ‘sleep score’ that rates your sleep that night. Over time, looking at the information these trackers provide you with can help you to determine the best time to sleep for more quality sleep.
Some devices, like those from Fitbit, also enable you to set a sleep schedule and turn on a ‘bedtime reminder’ to ensure you go to sleep at a time best suited to you each night. Other apps, like Sleep Cycle, monitor your movement throughout the night and wake you up with an alarm at what the app believes to be the optimum time for you based on your sleep stages.