Sorry, night owls, but the world is designed for morning people and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. You’re reminded of this annoying fact nearly every morning when your 6 a.m. alarm — or an co-sleeping kid — forces you awake before you feel ready. Yet in order to be a responsible coworker and a present parent, you just suck it up and get out of bed.
But being a night owl in a morning person’s world is more than just inconvenient. It’s also unhealthy. Research shows night owls are at greater risk for obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, addiction, depression, and even early death. This is not because they are inherently unhealthy people. Rather, by staying up late and sleeping the morning away, they are more likely to eat crappy food, skimp on exercise, and drink too much. Health concerns aside, though, for night owl parents, the more pressing problem is snoozing through the moments their kids need them most, or operating like a zombie when they should be on point.
The fix here is obvious: hit the sack sooner and wake up earlier. But as any night owl can attest, that’s extremely difficult to do. This is because they are basically battling biology. Each person is born with a specific sleep chronotype that dictates when their body prefers to wake up and wind down. Some are genetically predisposed to be night owls, others are “morning larks,” and the rest fall somewhere in the middle. So, unfortunately for night owl parents, staying up late and sleeping in is exactly what they are genetically programmed to do.
“It’s just like how people are tall and some are short,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., a sleep psychologist in Durham, N.C., and host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast. “With sleep chronotypes, we are all wired one way or another — and there is nothing we can do about it. When you’re a night owl, you’re always a night owl.”
Although a night owl can never change their chronotype they can push their body’s circadian clock forward in an attempt to get on an earlier routine. The circadian clock, also called the master clock, is the brain’s timekeeping mechanism that strives to keep bodily functions on a set schedule. “It’s is a two-way system,” Wu says. “The master clock tells the body what to do when, but it also listens to feedback — such as exposure to light, physical activity, and meal timing — and is constantly adjusting to make sure it stays on track. So, if a night owl gets exposure to bright light first thing in the morning and consistently wakes up at the same time, that will help nudge their clock forward.”
But this would be only a temporary fix. “You’re changing your circadian clock, but since it’s genetic, it’s not going to stay there,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a sleep specialist in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and author of The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype. “You literally need to change your clock every single day. It’s definitely not easy being a night owl.”
While it may be challenging, it is entirely possible for night owl parents to shift their sleep schedules to better accommodate their kids, jobs, and life in general. Take the obvious measures, like avoiding caffeine at least five hours before bed and banishing long afternoon naps, but also follow these six strategies for what to do and not do. Stick to them, and a morning person’s routine should feel less painful over time.
1. Start waking up at the same time every single day.
It’s normal for people stay up later and sleep in longer on the weekends than they do during the week. While not ideal for anyone’s well-being, seesawing sleep schedules are especially detrimental for night owls, who have an even harder time getting back on track come Monday. “This exacerbates the problem because it confuses the master clock,” Wu says. “It’s like flying from New York to California and back every weekend, basically jetlagging yourself and making it harder to fake being a morning person when you need to.”
To make those early weekday mornings easier, night owls should aim to keep bedtimes and wake times as consistent as possible seven days a week. “Be firm on rise time every day, even on the weekends,” Wu says. “Even if you couldn’t fall asleep early enough the night before, still get up. After following a consistent schedule for a few weeks, you should start feeling better on those early mornings and not struggle so much settling back into the workweek.
2. Maximize light exposure during the day.
Light hitting our retinas is the strongest signal to the circadian clock that it’s not bedtime. It suppresses the body’s production of melatonin, the “sleep hormone” that tells the body to relax and prepare for sleep. For this reason, “the more light exposure you get in a day, the more confident your master clock is that it’s actually daytime, which serves as a contrast to night,” Wu says. “The bigger the contrast, the clearer that signal is and the easier time the master clock has of keeping the biological machinery running on time.”
To get a dose of natural light first thing in the morning, Breus suggests sleeping with the blinds open. “Then walk over to the window as soon as you wake up,” he says. “Light has a more energetic effect on the brain and body than caffeine will, especially early in the morning.” Continue getting as much light as possible all day, and for those winter months when the days are short and the sun stays low in the sky, Wu suggests trying a therapy light, or light box. Just 30 minutes next to the light could be a big help for night owls trying to adjust their sleep schedule.
3. Dim lights at night.
While we want maximum light exposure during the daytime to block melatonin production, at night, it’s the exact opposite. Ideally, the body will start cranking out the hormone a few hours before bedtime, but because our homes are flooded with short-wavelength blue lights — smartphones, tablets, and computers emit them too — this often doesn’t happen. “If you’re staying up late on your phone or iPad with the bright light getting into your eyes, this tells the master clock in your brain that it’s still daytime and pushes it back further,” Wu says.
To help your body and brain settle down in the evenings, dim the lights in your home after dinner. And while it’s best to put down blue-light-emitting devices two hours before bed, if you must use them, dim the screens. Breus also suggests wearing blue-light-blocking glasses at least 90 minutes before bed so your body has a chance to produce melatonin.
4. Try melatonin — but do it correctly.
Melatonin supplements, which mimic the hormone produced by the body, may help night owls feel sleepy earlier. “They basically give your brain a little nudge to say it’s almost sunset so it’s time to ramp up production of natural melatonin,” Wu says. However, many people use supplemental melatonin incorrectly. “Usually, people take at or right before bedtime, but that’s too late — it won’t make any difference,” Wu notes. “It should be taken several hours before bedtime to kickstart the process of natural melatonin release.”
Proper timing and dosage also depend on individual chronotypes and circadian rhythms. For these reasons, Wu advises consulting with a sleep specialist who can analyze these factors and prescribe a customized melatonin regimen.
5. Avoid sedating medications.
While it may be tempting to pop an Advil PM, Benadryl, or another sedating over-the-counter drug to help you fall asleep earlier, Wu warns against them. “These medications don’t really solve the problem,” she says. “They don’t change circadian rhythms, so really, they are like a Band-Aid that has bad side effects.” Think daytime drowsiness, dry mouth, blurred vision, or nausea. And though they’re labeled as nonaddictive, they can be highly habit-forming. “If you feel desperate, like you’ve tried everything else, you take Tylenol PM, and you fall asleep, that is such a strong reinforcement to take it again,” Wu says. “Then you start feeling like you need it to sleep.”
6. Expecting parent? Don’t mess with your circadian clock, yet.
While many parents would benefit from changing their night owl ways, those with a baby on the way can probably hold off (that is, if their job and other obligations aren’t suffering because of their sleep habits). “To try to shift your sleep schedule in anticipation of parenthood won’t be worth it because any pattern you establish will be thrown out the window by the baby,” Wu says. “The baby’s circadian clock will be nonexistent for the first three months or so, making it virtually impossible for an adult to keep a regular sleep schedule.”
Even after the infant develops more of a day-night pattern, they’ll still likely wake up multiple times throughout the night and nap a lot during the day. Only once the child begins sleeping through the night consistently would it make sense to develop a morning lark-style sleep schedule.
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