Sleep onset. It’s the time it takes for you to fall asleep once your head hits the pillow. And just how long does it take to fall asleep?
The average time it takes someone to fall asleep is 20 minutes. That’s an average, so there’s a little wiggle room with each specific person.
If you’re not falling asleep in about 20 minutes, you’re probably feeling frustrated. And that really doesn’t help. Delayed onset sleep disorder could be the culprit.
The causes of delayed onset sleep disorder fall into three general categories. Some are easier to address than others, but essentially here they are.
Here are the three categories that cause sleep disorders:
1. Lifestyle choices
You may already know that being physically active, having an active social life, and participating in meaningful activities throughout your day can improve your sleep, but, if you’re struggling to fall asleep, there are other specific sleep-friendly lifestyle choices you may want to take note of.
It happens all too easily. When our daytime routines are disrupted, because we don’t have as rigid of a schedule as we once did, it’s so easy to let go of evening and bedtime routines too.
From falling asleep on the couch while watching TV (or playing a game on your phone) to taking naps throughout the day, bad sleep habits can make it much harder for you to fall asleep in that 20-minute window.
That may not be a big deal if you can wake up whenever you want the next day. And the day after that. But, if you need to be falling asleep so you can wake up on a particular schedule some of the time, you’re better off keeping to the same sleep schedule all the time.
Your brain and body are more skilled at maintaining a predictable sleep-wake cycle when you keep to a predictable schedule.
That means creating predictable, calming bedtime routines that aren’t rushed or otherwise overly alert.
Stimulant use throughout the day
Like bedtime routines, what you do the rest of the day will make it either easier or harder to fall asleep. If you’re feeling “keyed up” at bedtime, instead of calm and a little drowsy, you’re not going to fall asleep.
Three culprits are more likely to keep you alert. Caffeine, (vigorous) exercise, and screen time.
You probably already know this but drinking too much caffeine too late in the day will make it harder for you to fall asleep.
Photo: Andrew Neel/Pexels
And, if you’re a coffee lover, the sad news is that as we age, we tend to become more sensitive to caffeine’s effects. So, the older you are, the pro-sleep choice is to drink less caffeine earlier in the day.
As for exercise, vigorous exercise too close to bedtime can make you feel much more alert than you want to be when you need to fall asleep. This does not mean that exercise disrupts sleep.
On the contrary, physical activity improves sleep. You just have to be mindful of the intensity too close to bedtime. Schedule your vigorous workouts for earlier in the day and you could be falling asleep faster.
Same thing with screen time. You’re going to be taking in blue light all day — like we’re designed to, from sunlight. But our brains need that blue light to fade — think “sunset” — to know that it’s time to produce melatonin and go to sleep.
So having screen time late in the evening will make it harder to fall asleep. That means screens should be off at least 60 minutes before bedtime.
2. The sleep environment
Like many other things in life, our environment can either support or hinder our ability to function optimally. Ever tried to walk on icy sidewalks? The ice makes it harder to keep your balance and not fall. The same goes for sleep.
Your sensory preferences may be making it more difficult for you to fall asleep
If you have a sensitivity to light or sound, you can bet that living in an inner-city urban neighborhood with streetlights and traffic noises can make your sleep deprivation much worse.
Blackout curtains and good insulation (or having your bedroom on the quieter side of your home) can help. If you’re super sensitive, you may want to consider moving to a quieter part of the city for the sake of your sleep hygiene.
The feel of your mattress, pillow, bedsheets, and blankets may be another sensory factor to consider. If you don’t enjoy the feel of your bed, falling asleep will be more difficult. Anything from a change in sheets to a change in mattress may be to help you feel more comfortable.
And if you don’t like the smell of your laundry detergent, consider switching to something more to your liking, or even to a scent-free version.
Have you ever wondered why is it so hard to fall asleep during a heatwave?
Your body temperature needs to drop slightly to help you fall asleep. If your bedroom is too warm, you’ll struggle to sleep. Even in the winter.
Make it a habit to turn the temperature in your bedroom down to 18 degrees Celcius/65 degrees Fahrenheit to get primed for a good night’s rest.
But other than lying there feeling frustrated, is it really a problem if you’re not able to fall asleep?
The short answer: it might be.
If you’ve addressed lifestyle and environmental factors and you’re still not able to fall asleep in about 20 minutes, you may want to check with your physician to get your sleep and wake times scrutinized more carefully.
3. An underlying medical condition
Mental health challenges make sleep quality worse
It’s such a vicious cycle. If you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression, you may find it harder to fall asleep. And, if this means you’re getting less restful sleep, you’re likely going to struggle even more with stress, anxiety, and depression.
Lying in bed thinking about problems, worrying about the uncertainties in life (and there are many!), and feeling stuck in regrets and grief is no way to fall asleep.
If you’re experiencing nightmares, find a licensed therapist in your area, possibly one who does dream work. Or trauma therapy. Or both.
Some medical conditions can also impact sleep
If you’re not experiencing any mental health concerns and you’ve done everything else, you may still find it useful to discuss your sleep difficulties with your physician.
Physical pain, illness, certain medications, neurological conditions, and specific sleep disorders like delayed onset sleep disorders need to be assessed and addressed by a physician.
No one wants to think that they may have a medical problem but getting a diagnosis and appropriate care sooner rather than later is always the better option. A good night’s rest consistently is important for healing and maintaining good health, after all.
If you’ve done what you can do to improve your sleep routines, regulate your stimulant intake, and adjust your sleep environments, consulting with your physician or mental health professional may be the most helpful thing you can do to get your sleep, and your life, back on track.
How long does it take to fall asleep? As fast as you address delayed onset sleep disorder
With this information in your back pocket, you know what you need to do. Sometimes, the harder part is implementing what you know.
So if things are disrupted and you’re too tired to think straight, work with a sleep coach, therapist, or medical professional and get help. Sleep is one of the most underrated activities in our daily lives, even though it’s one that many people truly enjoy.
Judith Pinto is a parenting expert and coach who helps mothers parent their children of any age and learn to let go of guilt.