Sleep problems - tips and self-help

Sleep is important for your health.

Most people need 5 to 9 hours sleep a night. More than 7 hours is recommended for adults. The ideal amount is 8 hours, but everyone's different.

Sometimes you may not get as much sleep as you would like. But you’re probably getting enough sleep if you feel rested when you wake up and do not feel sleepy during the day.

Sleep problems are common and usually get better within a few weeks. Try not to worry if your sleep is disturbed for a short while.

Our tips for better sleep can help you sleep better.

Signs of sleep problems

You may not be getting enough sleep if you regularly:

  • wake up feeling tired
  • have trouble getting up
  • feel tired and irritable
  • find it hard to concentrate
  • rely on caffeine (in coffee or tea) or energy drinks to get through the day
  • have trouble coping with stress

Causes of sleep problems

The most common cause of sleep problems is poor sleeping habits. For example, sleeping in on weekends or looking at bright screens in bed.

Sleep problems can also happen because of:

  • your sleep environment — light, noise and temperature can affect sleep
  • a disrupted routine — shift work, caring for young children or staying up later than usual can change your sleep pattern
  • smoking, drinking alcohol or caffeine, or taking stimulant drugs
  • eating large meals before bed — this can make it harder to stay asleep
  • ageing — older people may sleep less deeply, nap during the day and sleep less at night
  • aches and pains — this can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep
  • health conditions — such as insomnia, sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome and asthma
  • menopause symptoms — hot flushes can make it harder to sleep and low levels of the hormone estrogen can make you pee more at night
  • having to pee during the night — this could be after drinking close to bed time or physical things like bladder problems
  • some medicines — talk to your GP if your medicines stop you from falling asleep or make you sleepy during the day

Sometimes sleep problems can be part of other difficulties, such as stress, anxiety, or low mood.

Tips for better sleep

Getting into a good sleep pattern may take weeks. You can do it by making small changes at a time.

How to change your sleep habits gradually

It can be hard to change habits. Old routines are familiar and take less effort. Wanting to change is a good start but the change needs to be realistic for a new habit to stick.

Start by making 1 small, manageable change.

For example, you could:

  • set an alarm to start winding down and get ready for bed
  • write a to-do list for the next day
  • go for a brisk walk during the day
  • avoid drinking coffee in the afternoon

When you can do the new habit without thinking, add other changes to your sleep routine.

Stick to a sleep routine

To help your body clock get into a rhythm:

  • get up at the same time
  • go outside and get light exposure during the day
  • go to bed at the same time

Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. By working out what time you need to wake up, you can set a regular bedtime schedule.

Keep the same routine at weekends too. Sleeping in can disrupt your sleep pattern.

Avoid naps during the day. Napping can make it harder to fall asleep at night.

Avoid substances that disrupt sleep

Avoid or cut down on things that keep you awake and affect sleep quality.

Nicotine

The nicotine in cigarettes is a stimulant. People who smoke take longer to fall asleep, wake up more often and have more disrupted sleep.

Get help to quit smoking

Alcohol

Alcohol may help you to fall asleep, but it harms the quality of your sleep and can wake you up in the night.

If you have disrupted sleep, avoid drinking alcohol in the evenings.

Caffeine

Caffeine can make it difficult to fall asleep and it can prevent deep sleep. Drinks with caffeine in them include tea, coffee, energy drinks or soft drinks. Foods can also contain caffeine, such as chocolate and some protein bars.

Caffeine affects people in different ways. If you have trouble sleeping, avoid caffeine 4 to 6 hours before bed.

Instead of using caffeine you can try:

  • going for a short walk if you feel sleepy after lunch
  • switching to caffeine-free drinks such as water or fruit juices in the afternoon

Large meals

Too much food at night can cause sleep problems.

Try not to eat a large meal 3 to 4 hours before bed.

Relax before bed

Winding down is an important stage in preparing for bed. It helps you to relax and gets your body ready for sleep.

Create a wind-down routine that works for you.

To wind down, you could:

  • do gentle stretches to relax your muscles, such as gentle yoga
  • listen to relaxing sounds, for example, guided relaxation or calming music
  • do deep breathing exercises or meditation
  • have a warm bath to help your body reach a temperature that's ideal for rest
  • put your phone away - it's easy to spend more time on it than you intended

Bright light from screens can affect your body clock. Limit your use of electronic devices in the hour before bed.

Learn about other relaxation tips

Calm a racing mind

Many people lie in bed going over the day in their minds and thinking about everything they have to do the next day. This makes it harder to fall asleep.

To calm a racing mind before bed, you could try to:

  • make time to plan for the next day, such as writing a to-do list
  • let go of any difficult thoughts and feelings from the day — write them down or talk about them
  • read a book or listen to a relaxing podcast
  • try mindfulness

Talk to your GP if:

  • you have problems falling asleep that last for more than 4 weeks

They may suggest you do some cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This can help change thoughts and behaviours that stop you from sleeping.

Change your thinking and improve your mental health

Create a restful place to sleep

Try to have a relaxing space for sleeping.

You could:

  • make sure the room is not too hot or too cold
  • keep the space dark - sleep with as little light as possible, use curtains or an eye mask if you need to
  • use earplugs to block out noise
  • avoid using a TV or electronic devices
  • keep pets out if they disturb your sleep
  • put a few drops of lavender oil on your pillow - the smell can help you relax
  • put away any work-related devices when you finish for the day if you have to work from your bedroom

It's difficult to get restful sleep on a mattress that's too soft or too hard. Or on a bed that's too small or old. Replace uncomfortable mattresses or beds if you can.

Get up if you cannot sleep

If you cannot sleep, get up and do something you find relaxing. But keep the light levels low.

When you feel sleepy again, go back to bed.

Avoid looking at a clock or checking the time often. This can cause stress and make it harder to sleep.

Keep active

Regular physical activity is a great way to improve your sleep and help you fall asleep faster.

To get the most benefit, do at least 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 days a week. Moderate activities make your heart beat faster than normal and your breathing harder than normal.

An example of a moderate activity is brisk walking. But even walking a bit more than usual during the day can improve your sleep.

Avoid vigorous exercise in the hour before you go to bed. For example, running. It can make it harder to fall asleep.

Learn why being active helps your health

Avoid staying up late for 'me time'

Many people stay up late to get back some ‘me time’. But this can disrupt your sleep routine.

Think of sleep as ‘me time’ too. You need it to restore your energy and feel good during the day.

Try to make some time for yourself during the day, such as taking a short walk or phoning a friend for a chat.

If finding time is difficult, try to:

  • focus on priorities and spread out other tasks over the week
  • give yourself permission to say ‘no’ to things that are not a priority
  • delegate or ask for help with some tasks
Keep a sleep diary

A daily sleep diary can help you to find out why you can't sleep. For example, lifestyle habits, activities, medicines or stress.

Take a few minutes to note:

  • the time you go to bed and wake up
  • how long it takes you to fall asleep
  • how often you wake during the night
  • when you feel tired during the day
  • how much alcohol, caffeinated drinks or tobacco you have and when
  • how much exercise you do and when
  • if you took any medicines

If you see your GP or a sleep specialist, they may ask you to keep a sleep diary to help them diagnose your sleep problems.

Download a template sleep diary — nhs.co.uk

Self-help resources for sleep problems

Headspace app

A free app that teaches meditation and mindfulness skills.

Get Headspace from the App Store

Get Headspace from Google Play

Stress Control course

For many people, stress can include or be linked to feelings of anxiety or low mood.

Our 'Stress Control' course can help you learn stress management skills.

StressControl.ie

When to talk to someone else

If you have tried our tips and the self help resources but you think you need extra support, it may help to talk to someone.

Mental health supports and services

Text 50808

A free text message service to chat anonymously with someone for support. Funded by the HSE.

Text HELLO to 50808 to chat with a volunteer, anytime.

text50808.ie

Samaritans

Samaritans services are available anytime, for confidential and non-judgemental support.

Freephone Samaritans on 116 123

jo@samaritans.ie

samaritans.ie

Worried about someone else

If you notice someone is struggling with their mental health, this can be worrying. You may not know what to do.

Read our advice on how to help someone experiencing mental health issues

Non-urgent advice: Talk to a GP or mental health professional if:

  • you are finding it hard to cope
  • a sleep problem is having a negative affect on your day-to-day life
  • a sleep problem has been going on for a while or getting worse

Ask for an urgent appointment if you are in crisis.

Insomnia means you have an ongoing problem sleeping.

Page last reviewed: 1 September 2022
Next review due: 1 September 2025