The countdown to Christmas: minimising disruption to your sleep

Worried about over-indulging this festive season? Our resident sleep expert, Christabel Majendie, is here to help with some handy tips and advice on how to get a good night's sleep at Christmas. 

Christmas is approaching and the excitement is building. It’s a fun month with Christmas parties and celebrations, champagne, delicious food and treats, presents to buy and time off work for many. But the festive season can bring challenges to our sleep and it’s a good idea to be aware of these. Below are some tips to help maintain good quality sleep over the Christmas season.

Avoid over-eating

With Christmas parties throughout December, followed by the family meals on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, many of us end up eating too much. Not only does this add to our waistline but it may impact negatively on our sleep. Going to bed after a heavy meal can keep you awake as your body can’t relax while it tries to digest all that food. It can also exacerbate symptoms of reflux as digestive juices are more likely to escape the stomach if lying down, making it harder to get to sleep or stay asleep.

Be aware of your alcohol intake

Drinking alcohol before bed interferes with your natural sleep patterns.  Although it sends you into a deep sleep initially, even mild withdrawal effects may wake you up later in the night. Alcohol causes dehydration so you may wake up in the night thirsty or needing to use the bathroom. Also it changes the structure of your sleep by suppressing REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep which is important for memory, attention and other cognitive functioning.  If you do have a drink, it's best to leave a couple of hours before going to bed so the alcohol is already wearing off. I’m not saying don’t have fun, just to be aware of your units. Not only may this minimise disruption to your sleep, it may prevent any regrets the day after a Christmas party! (which might keep you awake the following night.)

Maintain a regular bedtime routine

With time off work over the Christmas season, it’s tempting to let your bedtime routine slip with late nights and lie-ins the following morning. If you are short of sleep, getting a few more hours kip maybe a good idea initially. But do be aware that changing your sleep times may disrupt your natural circadian rhythm, leading to sleep problems. Aim to go to bed when you are feeling sleepy and at a fairly regular time and get up at roughly the same time every morning. In this way, you will minimise problems when it comes to the end of the festive period and you have to return to work. This is particularly important for children in order to prevent sleep problems and tiredness when they return to school.

Avoid napping

Generally, I would advise against napping unless you are sleep deprived or if you feel tired before a long journey (falling asleep at the wheel is a common cause of road traffic accidents). Napping in the day reduces your ‘sleep drive’ meaning there is less drive for sleep when it comes to the night. If you really feel you need one, keep it to 15 minutes so you don’t go into deep sleep, (which is hard to come out of), and don’t make it too late in the day (no later than 3pm). If you feel sleepy during the day from alcohol or food, it’s best to go out for a walk to wake you up.

Keep active

Christmas is considered ‘time off’ for many and sometimes exercise falls into this bracket.  But exercise is not just important for your physical and mental health. People who are physically fitter tend to have better quality sleep with research indicating that exercise increases our periods of deep sleep during the night. However, do not take exercise in the hours before bedtime, as this can stimulate the brain, heart and muscles and raise your body temperature making it difficult for you to drop off to sleep.

Get out in the natural daylight

It may not be tempting to go outside in the cold over Christmas but getting out in the natural daylight has a direct impact on our sleep. Light is the main cue to our brains that it is time to be awake or time to sleep. Cells behind our eyes can detect the brightness of light and send signals to the sleep centres in our brain to help regulate our body clocks. So getting out in the daylight helps us to sleep at appropriate times. If you can combine exercise with exposure to natural daylight, all the better for your sleep.

Dealing with excitement

How do you get the kids to sleep on Christmas Eve? Some don’t want to go to sleep as they are excited or want to see Father Christmas and others really want to get to sleep so it will be Christmas day but can’t drop off because paradoxically they are trying too hard. Although it’s tempting to scrap it, stick to all the normal routines of bedtime: a bath, a bedtime story. This will help them to relax and a bath causes a drop in body temperature afterwards which is a sign to the brain it is time for sleep. Avoid exciting conversations about Christmas before bed and put them to bed at the usual time. For those who are trying too hard to sleep and can’t drop off, distract them with a calming song or tell them to think of a special place to imagine, such as somewhere on holiday.

Dealing with Stress

Hopefully, Christmas is a time for enjoyment, but at times it can sometimes seem a bit stressful. When you feel you have too much to do, it may seem a good idea to keep busy up until bedtime. But, if you haven’t relaxed and wound down before sleep, it may be pointless hopping straight into bed. Aim to stop tasks an hour before bedtime after preparing your to do list for the next day. Spend the last hour of the day relaxing with a book, having a bath or listening to some gentle music. It is more important for Christmas to enjoyable than perfect. 

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