When Is the Best Time to Go to Bed?

By Mario Esposito
Last Updated: December 15, 2019

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The quick answer to the title question is the obvious one—when you feel sleepy—and to some degree, it’s correct! In an ideal situation, you should sleep when you feel yourself winding down. Every person is different, though. Your ideal bedtime may not be the same as your someone else’s.

When it comes to people and sleep, there are morning larks and there are night owls. These aren’t simple descriptors, but actual chronotypes.

What Are Chronotypes?

Chronotypes are circadian phases of human behavior. Your chronotype is the part of your natural body clock that knows when you should sleep or be active, and for how long.

The names of the different chronotypes are taken from animals displaying similar sleep behavior! Hence: morning lark and night owl. Easy enough to understand, right? American researcher Dr. Michael Breus offers a more varied four-type classification: the bear, the lion, the wolf, and the dolphin.

What Do Chronotypes Have to Do with Bedtime?

It’s not hard to see why your bedtime should be based on your chronotype. When your chronotype aligns with your regular schedule, you get better quality sleep and more productive waking hours.

Following your chronotype is easier said than done, though! School activities, work shifts, family gatherings, and other unavoidable social obligations can result in a sub-optimal sleep-wake pattern. In fact, these recurring events can make it difficult to figure out what your chronotype is in the first place.

You can take a chronotype test or go to a specialist, but remember: Structuring your waking life around your chronotype may take weeks, if not months. To add to the confusion, chronotypes can change based on factors like age and sleep quality.

man sleeping on bed during the day

What Are the Factors that Determine Your Ideal Bedtime?

If following your chronotype is not an option, you can settle for the next best thing: determining your ideal bedtime. The easiest way to do it is to derive a target bedtime from a combination of three things. Not method, mindset and materials—that’s for a good night’s rest!

Here’s what you need to look at: the commonly accepted sleep cycle, the amount of sleep your body needs, and your ideal wake up time.

1. The Sleep Cycle

This lasts for about 90 minutes and is broken into four stages, during which different things happen. You want to get the most out of the third and fourth stages; as it’s the deepest and restorative sleep. During this time your energy is restored, tissue repairs are done, growth hormones are released.

Waking up in the middle of a cycle is discouraged, as it will likely leave you with a tired and grumpy feeling that can last the whole day. It’s best to wake up right before the first stage, when you’re experiencing light sleep and have just gone through one or more full cycles.

2. The Recommended Amount of Sleep

How much sleep you should be getting depends on your age. The National Sleep Foundation determined that adults aged 18 to 64 should get between seven to nine hours of shuteye. Over 64? You’re not off the hook. At that age, you still need between seven to eight hours.

Because one full sleep cycle is about 90 minutes, it’s usually a good idea to sleep for either seven and a half hours or a full nine. This way, sleep duration ensures at least five full sleep cycles.

Each person’s sleep cycle is unique, though; 90 minutes is not universal. If you feel better after seven or eight hours versus multiples of 90 minutes, your cycle may be shorter or longer than average.

3. Your Ideal Wake Up Time

What time do you need to wake up? This is the most realistic and essential determinant of your bedtime.

If you generally need to be at school or work by 9:30 AM, for example, you should be awake way before that. Let’s say you wake up at 8:00 AM; which leaves ample time to get ready, eat breakfast and commute to your workplace. With a 90-minute sleep cycle, you need to be falling asleep by either 11:00 PM or 12:30 AM.

There are browser-based programs and mobile apps that calculate your ideal bedtime for you like this.

woman stretching arms while sitting on one side of an unmade bed

Finally: What Does “Bedtime” Really Mean?

Here’s something that is often left unsaid: Bedtime is when you go to bed with the intent of sleeping, not when you begin your first sleep cycle.

You shouldn’t start counting sleep time before you actually fall asleep. Many people take between 10 to 20 minutes to drift off to dreamland, and that’s when they’re properly rested; but of course, you know your body best. Take this into consideration.

Start winding down around three hours before bedtime. If you want to be asleep at 11:00 PM, let go of anything stressful by 8:00 PM. Nighttime rituals help: journal writing, meditating, even reading or taking a long bath. This way, when you actually go to bed—around 20 or 30 minutes before you want to sleep—you’ll hopefully find yourself relaxed enough to do so.

Good luck, and sweet dreams!