How to Get a Great Night’s Sleep
Toss and turn all night? Wake up tired and sore? Our expert advice—and the top mattresses, pillows, and more from our tests—can help you finally rest easy.
Sometimes, sleep doesn’t come easily—even when you’ve avoided caffeine and a heavy meal, and even when you’ve programmed a bedtime reminder on your voice assistant. You find yourself scrolling through Instagram, watching yet another episode on Netflix, sending off one more email. And now it’s well past midnight. What to do?
Experts say that an important part of sleep is your sleep environment. “If your bedroom is not only a comfortable space but a desirable one, then it has more pull,” says W. Chris Winter, MD, a sleep medicine specialist and neurologist, and the author of “The Sleep Solution” (Penguin Random House, 2018).
Fortunately, you won’t need to invest time or money in a bedroom overhaul to achieve a better sleep sanctuary. Adjusting a few key elements, including the temperature of your room and the thickness of your pillows, can help create an oasis you’ll look forward to retiring to each night. Here’s what you need to know to sleep better.
A Great Mattress
A mattress is your foundation for good sleep. An uncomfortable or unsupportive mattress might distract you from falling asleep, or it might wake you up as you’re sleeping. So consider the following.
Switch out a mattress that’s giving you pain, especially if you feel less achy and better rested every time you sleep in a bed at a hotel or someone else’s home.
This is especially true if your body has changed since you bought your mattress, says Naimish Baxi, MD, an attending physiatrist at New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery. For instance, if you’ve gained some weight over the years, you may need a mattress with more support.
Your body temperature shifts over the course of the day and night. “Core temperature decreases slightly and skin temperature increases around bedtime to prepare you for sleep,” says Roy Raymann, PhD, a consultant who has published scientific papers on sleep and temperature and is based in San Diego. “During the second half of the night, it flips to help you wake up.” The right bedding keeps you from overheating and waking up.
Choose breathable sheets. These warm the skin while allowing heat from the core to dissipate into the air, Raymann says. Natural fibers—such as 100 percent cotton or linen—are a good choice. They’re more breathable than polyester or cotton-poly blends. Tencel lyocell and rayon sheets work well, too, says Deborah Young, a textile instructor at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles.
Stick with cozy blankets that allow for good airflow. That means cotton and lightweight wool, such as merino wool, Young says. They’ll keep you pleasantly toasty while still letting air flow through. Fleece, usually made with polyester, offers warmth, too, but less breathability, so it’s not the best choice if you tend to sleep hot.
Go with a down comforter, if you can. A cotton comforter filled with down—generally the softest and fluffiest feathers of a goose or duck—will add warmth without trapping excessive heat. If you prefer to avoid down, look for a down-alternative comforter described as breathable or temperature-regulating.
Look for designs that have many smaller individual compartments sewn all the way through the comforter. This helps prevent the filling from bunching up and leaving uncomfortable lumps and thin spots.
Layer up your coverings. This lets you easily adjust throughout the night—peeling a layer off if you’re hot, or adding another piece if it’s too cool.
Switch out your sheets once a week. Sheets can get dusty and attract dust mites, making even the softest sheets feel a tad gritty. Launder according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and avoid fabric softeners. “Fabric softeners can make people with sensitive skin feel itchy,” says Joyce Davis, MD, a dermatologist in private practice in New York City.
Pillows are more than a piece of fluff. The right one, used in the right way, can cushion your muscles and bones, and ease the strain on your joints—so that pain doesn’t distract you from sleeping, or slow you down in the morning.
Match your pillow to your sleep position. The right one stabilizes your neck in a neutral position and aligns it with the rest of your body. For instance, if you’re a side sleeper, the pillow should be thick enough to cover the distance between your ear and shoulder on the side you’re lying on, Baxi says. If you’re a back sleeper, choose a pillow lofty enough to cradle your head but not so high that it strains your neck. Stomach sleepers should switch positions to the back or side. (But if you must sleep on your stomach, skip the pillow altogether—this will at least help keep the neck in closer alignment to the spine, says Ahmed Radwan, PhD, professor of physical therapy at Utica University in New York.)
Don’t limit pillows to your head. To prevent strain on your top hip when side sleeping, place a pillow between your knees. To relax muscles in your lower back when back sleeping, slide a pillow under your knees.
An Enticing Bedroom
Just as important as your mattress and bedding is your bedroom’s overall environment. Controlling the levels of light, temperature, humidity, and noise, and even the quality of air, can be the difference between a restless and restful night.
Set your bedroom thermostat to around 65° F (or thereabouts, depending on what feels comfortable). Then cozy up under breathable blankets. The best way to channel sleep, at least temperature-wise, is by being in a cool room and a comfortably warm bed, Raymann says.
Dim the lights before bed. “Your circadian rhythm works by comparing the light you were exposed to in the day to the light you’re experiencing at night,” says Jamie Zeitzer, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University’s Center for Sleep & Circadian Sciences. So get as much outdoor light as you can during the day, and reinforce that contrast by dimming your lamps.
Block outside light with blackout shades or a sleep mask. That can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, Zeitzer says. In CR’s October 2022 sleep survey, 88 percent of Americans rated these window coverings as “very” or “somewhat effective”; more than 75 percent who bought a sleep mask found it to be at least “somewhat effective.”
Cover up indicator lights with black electrical tape. Those bright, aggravating beams on your printer or cable box can distract you from sleep, especially if you’re already tossing and turning. Use a hole punch to create neat light-blocking circles.
Mask irksome noises with a white-noise machine. If you have a smartphone, you already have one! The myNoise app has a number of free options. Match the soothing sound (ocean waves, rain, etc.) to your nuisance noise so that the noise keeping you awake is blended away without you having to turn up the volume (ocean waves with whooshing traffic, for instance). Some of our favorite sunrise alarm clocks can help create this soothing atmosphere, offering sleep-friendly lighting and sounds to aid you as you fall asleep.
Freshen up the air with an air purifier, if your nose and throat feel congested even after diligent dusting and vacuuming. “Indoor air quality is especially a concern if you’ve been diagnosed with asthma or a dust allergy,” Winter says. (Some of the machines we’ve tested cleared the air impressively without making a racket.)
Adjust humidity levels. In addition to drying out your skin, nose, and throat, low humidity enables allergens to become airborne more easily—exacerbating airway irritation, Raymann says. Adjust humidity levels to between 30 and 50 percent to loosen mucous membranes, CR experts say, for better breathing—and sleeping. (We include models suitable for small, medium, and large rooms in our testing; some humidifiers are as effective as they are quiet.)
The Right Frame of Mind
If you’re in a cozy bed inside a cool, dark, quiet room—and you still can’t sleep—then a few mental strategies can ease you into a more sleep-friendly state. You can try the suggestions below on your own, or use an app. Popular options such as Calm and Headspace offer free sessions online and in-app. You can also explore free university resources, such as the exercises on Dartmouth University’s student wellness center site.
Practice slowing your breath and lengthening it, particularly on the exhale. “When we control our breath, we lower our heart rate and we bring our blood pressure down, says Maren Hyde-Nolan, PhD, a psychologist at Henry Ford Health in Detroit. If distracting thoughts come to mind, let them pass and go back to focusing on your breath.
Try guided imagery. You can use an app (including those mentioned above) as your guide, or simply imagine a place that relaxes you, such as a specific beach you’ve vacationed at or a park that you enjoy strolling in. Recreate the scene in your head, including every small visual detail, as well as the scents, sounds, and textures.
Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the February 2023 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.