Sleep onset latency or sleep latency in short, is the amount of time it takes for you to fall asleep after you close your eyes. Why does it take an hour (or more) to fall asleep? It should not take an hour or more to fall asleep. You may have an occasional night when it takes less or more time than usual to go to sleep, but what’s normal?
How long should it take to fall asleep?
Sleep latency can be different from person to person but on average 10 – 20 minutes for a healthy person is a normal time for you to fall asleep.
If it takes you less than 8 minutes to fall asleep you may be sleep deprived or could have a sleep disorder present causing poor sleep in general. On the other end, if it takes you longer than 20-30 minutes to fall asleep that may also be a sign of a sleep disorder.
What’s keeping you awake?
Do you know your chronotype? What’s a chronotype? What I mean is, are you a morning person or an evening person? You may even be a late evening person. Individual circadian rhythms can be different for different people.
Circadian rhythm is your internal clock. The natural cycle of mental and physical changes you go through every 24 hours which is strongly regulated by exposure to light and dark.
Maybe you are going to bed too early or earlier than usual making it take longer to fall asleep. But, what else can make it harder to fall asleep?
- Anxiety or depression
- Pain or discomfort
- Medications – many medications affect sleep and can shorten or lengthen the time it takes to fall asleep
- Medical conditions – certain health conditions can affect sleep.
- Poor sleep habits – also called sleep hygiene, is the activities leading up to bedtime
- Too much sleep or naps
- A sleep disorder– such as insomnia or delayed sleep phase
- Age – Most of us experience a harder time falling asleep as we get older. Our circadian rhythms change in part due to changes in melatonin production and cortisol levels. Melatonin plays a role in regulating your circadian rhythms and promoting sleep when it becomes dark. But, many older people tend to get less exposure to light, a powerful trigger, during the day to help regulate the sleep wake cycle.Did you know that alcohol may help you fall asleep in less time but for many people it causes them to awaken hours later?
Do I have an underlying sleep disorder?
Insomnia is often the first thing that comes to mind for many people when you talk about sleep disorders. While difficulty falling asleep is a common sign of insomnia, it is not the only sleep condition that can affect sleep latency. Others that your doctor can diagnose could include:
Delayed Sleep phase disorder – this circadian rhythm sleep disorder happens in about 1% of older adults. As the name implies, your sleep rhythm is shifted by two hours or more so that you may feel like going to sleep at say 6PM and waking at 2AM. This may make it more difficult to fall asleep if you are out of time with your cycle.
Restless legs syndrome – known as RLS for short, restless legs syndrome is characterized by a strong urge to move your legs which begins or becomes stronger when sitting or lying down and is usually stronger at night.
Narcolepsy – rather than taking a long time to sleep, people with narcolepsy fall asleep very quickly, on average less than 8 minutes, and at inconvenient times such as at work or driving.
It is important to consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis if you suspect a sleep disorder.
How sleep latency affects the quality of your sleep and why it’s important
Sleep latency and sleep efficiency are closely related. You cycle through multiple stages of sleep at night which last about 90-120 minutes each cycle. You normally pass through 3 -4 cycles at night to feel fully rested.
When you take a longer time to fall asleep it can delay beginning your first stage of sleep and limit the number of sleep cycles you can complete. When you have less time to sleep then you might not get enough REM sleep in this case.
Sleep debt has a large impact on sleep latency. Sleep debt is lost sleep built up over time. Your brain keeps an exact you are more likely to fall asleep quicker than if you are well rested.
The five stages of sleep
Sleep is given a range of 5 phases that you pass through. Each phase moving in progression deeper into sleep.
Wake – The first stage of sleep is the drowsy period when you begin to drift off. Your eyes close and your brain transitions from the beta waves of wakefulness to alpha waves to begin sleep.
Stage 1 (N1) – In light sleep your breathing becomes more regular but muscles are not yet fully relaxed.
Stage 2 (N2) – Most time asleep is spent in this stage which grows longer through each successive cycle through the night. Your heart rate and temperature drop during this deeper part of sleep.
Stage 3 (N3) – While you are in this deepest stage of sleep your body is repairing and rebuilding tissue, bones and muscle and boosting your immune system. As you age you often spend less time in this stage and more time in stage 2. This is also the hardest phase of sleep to wake from.
REM sleep – Normally beginning after about 90 minutes after you fall asleep, this dreaming stage also becomes longer with each cycle. The last episode may last up to an hour.
If it takes a long time to fall asleep and you don’t get enough sleep as a result you may feel daytime sleepiness and other effects from the lost sleep. If occurring over a period of time you may experience larger effects of sleep deprivation.
How can I fall asleep faster?
Determine what is keeping you awake. When you have pain or discomfort the cause of it obviously needs to be addressed to relieve the pain. Make sure your bedding and pillow are comfortable and the room is cool. Follow good sleep hygiene routine:
- Go to bed and wake at the same time every day. Keep the rhythm so your body knows its time to sleep.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and large meals near bedtime.
- Being physically active during the day can help your body be more ready to sleep at bedtime.
- Get plenty of light during the day and at night make sure your bedroom is dark helping to trigger your circadian rhythm.
- Don’t have electronic devices in the bedroom, TV’s, computers, smart phones etc., the light and activity tells your brain it’s time to be awake.
Have a bedtime routine that winds you down. Turn the lights down 30 minutes before bed. A relaxing activity such as reading a book, listening to music, or taking a warm bath will tell your brain that sleep time is coming up.
I find a warm cup of herbal tea helpful to relax, such as chamomile.
Any activity you find relaxing can work. Following a nightly routine will condition your brain to know what to expect.
If medications are making it more difficult to fall asleep talk to your doctor. See if a change in medicine or timing can help. Your doctor will know what is best for your personal situation and health.
Some people find these methods helpful to fall asleep:
4-7-8 breathing method
This breath control pattern developed by Dr. Andrew Weil relaxes your nervous system and can be especially helpful to relax you and help you fall asleep quicker if anxiety or stress are keeping you awake.
- With your tongue behind your upper teeth, exhale completely through your mouth
- Now inhale through your nose for a count of 4
- Hold your breath for a count of 7
- Exhale completely through your mouth while counting to 8
- Repeat this cycle at least 3 times
Create a worry list
If a racing mind is keeping you awake with worries or concerns for the next day make a list. Creating anxiety by mulling over events of the day or trying not to forget what needs to be done tomorrow will only make it harder to sleep.
Write down what is worrying you or your to-do list and tell yourself it’s ok to let it go. There is nothing you can do about it until tomorrow and you won’t forget because you wrote it down.
Next reinforce it by writing down the positive things that happened or you achieved during the day to give you a sense of gratitude and fulfillment and downgrade the more stressful events of the day.
This should help ease your mind and allow you feel more relaxed to promote sleep.
Meditation or mindfulness or yoga
For many people these relaxation techniques have shown to help improve your sleep even if you only have 15 minutes to practice them before bed.
The 4-7-8 breathing method mentioned was derived from yoga techniques. Yoga can promote sleep by using body movements and breathing patterns to help you let go of the stress and tensions that build up in your body.
Through meditation, you can attain a calmer, more peaceful state of mind that enhances the level of melatonin in your brain. Melatonin promotes sleep and works with your circadian rhythm to let your brain know it’s time to sleep.
Mindfulness is a method of staying focused on the present so that you are not thinking of the worries of the day to make you feel anxious at bed time.
There are many guides for all these methods available online and in print.
When it takes a long time to fall asleep it can affect the quality of sleep you get. Having enough time to cycle through all the phases of sleep 3-4 times per night can also be limited when you can’t go to sleep easily.
So you might not be getting the full restorative benefits of a good night’s sleep if it takes longer than 10-20 minutes to fall asleep.
Besides the methods listed previously, some people may use dietary supplements or sleep aids to help them get to sleep. Some may help you get to sleep faster, others may rather help you stay asleep or sleep longer.
Do you do something that helps you fall asleep quickly? Let other readers know about it and leave it in the comments below.
When you consistently take longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep or suspect you have a sleep disorder talk to your doctor to find what is best for your individual condition and health.
Thank you for taking the time to read todays article. I hope you found it helpful and informative. Please leave a comment below if this was helpful and like and share if you did.
Until next time, Goodnight!
The information on this website is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. When you have questions regarding your health you should seek the advice of your health care provider.
It takes me hours to fall asleep – am I normal?
Brain basics: Understanding sleep
Your guide to healthy sleep
What is “normal” sleep?
Physiology, sleep stages