Can Adults Be Sleep Trained?

If you've had a baby in the last two decades, you may be familiar with sleep training. Sleep training, popularized by a pediatrician who studies sleep disorders in children, teaches babies to become more independent and be able to fall asleep without parental comforting.

While controversial, the methods employed in sleep training have apparently helped parents get their babies to sleep through the night. For many parents and other adults, however, an unbroken night's sleep of their own remains an elusive goal.

Can sleep-training techniques be used on adults who suffer from insomnia? While the methods used may be different from those practiced on babies, the answer is yes—almost all adults can be trained to sleep better.

Besides a concrete health problem such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy, the reason many people don't sleep well or sleep enough is simple: habit. "Insomnia may be a learned behavior," says Dr. Patrick J. Strollo, Jr, MD, professor of medicine and clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh. The good news, he reports, is that no matter how terrible your sleep habits, they can almost certainly be fixed. "No one really has permanently broken sleep."

Dr. Strollo's recommended techniques include:

Sleep restriction. Or, more accurately, restricting the time you spend in bed hoping to sleep. "The notion is that you don't go to bed until you're sleepy," Dr. Strollo says. This helps avoid frustration and worry. If you wake in the night and can't fall back to sleep, he recommends that you get up and sit in a chair or listen to soft music until you're sleepy again.

Alarm clocks. Setting an alarm to wake you at the same time each day helps stabilize your sleep cycle. According to Dr. Strollo, the longer you're awake during the day, the more of the hormone adenosine builds in your system. Eventually, adenosine builds to a level that causes sleepiness. By letting yourself sleep too long in the morning, your body will take longer to reach the level of adenosine it needs to make you feel tired, and you may find yourself falling asleep at night later than you wish.

Avoiding caffeine. Caffeine counteracts the sleep-promoting effects of adenosine, interfering with your body's ability to fall asleep. For insomniacs, even having a cup of coffee in the morning can cause problems with sleep later that night.

Using light. Exposure to morning light, even small amounts, has been shown to suppress the production of melatonin, a natural sleep hormone produced by your body at night.




Patrick J. Strollo, Jr, MD, professor of medicine and clinical and translational science, University of Pittsburgh.