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Secrets to a better night’s sleep

We reveal all the right stuff—mattresses, lighting, and even the best bedtime rituals

Published: February 2014

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How do you get a good night’s rest? Consumer Reports recently posed that question to 8,900 people who reported having few sleep difficulties (or none) in the previous 30 days. Here’s what we found: Good sleepers are more likely to exercise during the day, go to bed and wake up at a set time, unwind for 30 minutes before going to sleep, and engage in sexual activity before bed.

To help you create a sleep environment that is truly conducive to good rest, here are some tips from sleep specialists, our readers, and the experts in Consumer Reports’ labs.

Get the right mattress

If you’ve slept on the same mattress for more than eight years and wake up stiff and sore, you should think about getting a new one. Worn-out mattresses don’t supply the same comfort and support as newer ones. And as we grow older, our bodies become more sensitive to pressure points, so a cushiony mattress might provide a better night’s sleep than a rock-hard bed.

Where should you go to buy one? In our recent survey of 12,000 mattress shoppers, respondents ranked The Original Mattress Factory’s mattresses first. They also gave high scores for quality to Costco, Ikea, Denver Mattress, Tempurpedic, Select Comfort, and Sleep Train.

Dim the lights

Watching TV before climbing under the covers might seem like a great way to relax, but it can cue your brain to feel alert rather than drowsy. If you use an e-reader in bed, consider features and apps that display white text on a black background, which is less stimulating than the usual brightly lighted white background. To dim the glare of street lights or early-morning sun, use blackout curtains or wear eyeshades.

Neutralize noises

White noise can improve sleep quality by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and the number of times you’re awakened while sleeping. Of the readers in our 2012 survey who tried sound machines, 43 percent said that they helped them sleep better. The machines—which can make you feel like you’re in a forest or at the beach—worked almost as well as insomnia drugs for putting respondents to sleep.

In our tests several years ago, all three of the units we looked at, made by Brook­stone, Homedics, and Marpac, blocked out at least some unwanted sounds. You can also try turning on a fan or simply using earplugs.

Adopt a routine

Keep a consistent schedule of wake-up time and bedtime, and don’t vary them by more than an hour each day. Adjust the temperature in your bedroom to between 68° F and 70° F, which is the ideal range for sleeping. Avoid exercising, eating a big meal, or drinking alcohol or caffeine within 3 to 4 hours of going to bed. And put your dog or cat in a separate sleeping spot and snuggle up with your significant other instead. You’ll sleep better. 

When to consider sleeping pills

If lifestyle measures aren’t enough, you might try an over-the-counter sleep aid that contains the antihistamine diphenhydramine (Nytol, Simply Sleep, some Unisom products, and generics) or doxylamine (Unisom SleepTabs and generic). Those are generally better than combination products such as Advil PM and Tylenol PM. If an OTC remedy doesn’t help, talk with your doctor about zolpidem, the generic version of the drug Ambien. But avoid taking any sleeping pills for more than seven consecutive days. If problems persist, see your doctor to determine whether you have an underlying condition that’s causing your sleeplessness.


Editor's Note:   This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.  
   

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