Get Better Sleep by Spending Less Time in Bed: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia


The idea of getting more sleep by spending less time in bed may seem counterproductive, but this concept has helped many overcome insomnia and sleep troubles

The notion that spending more time in bed increases our sleep can backfire due to the association our brain makes while in bed. Whatever you do from the time you lie down to the time you fall asleep is what the mind associates bedtime with. So, when we can’t sleep, frustration may set in, or anxiety about how we will feel the next day due to a lack of sleep. We might pick up our phone or turn on the TV since we are just lying there in bed, awake. The emotions, thoughts and activities we engage in while in our bed are training our brains to identify what bedtime is. We need to break this habit and retrain ourselves. The idea of delaying bedtime allows for more condensed sleep and experiencing fewer frustrating emotions and thoughts around bedtime.

Keep a Sleep Journal

The first step of this process is to keep a log of the time you go to bed, duration and number of awakenings, time awake in the morning, and the time you get out of bed for a period of one week. You can then calculate the amount of time that you are actually asleep.

To keep it simple, let’s say you go to bed at 11 pm but don’t fall asleep until 1 am and wake around 7 am. You are spending 2 hours in bed doing anything but sleeping (and making those associations).

Limit Awake Time

Now comes the concept of limiting time in bed. Don’t go to bed until 1 am for one week and make sure you keep the same wake up time. Once you are able to fall asleep when you climb into bed at 1 am you can move your bedtime up a half hour. Repeat each week until you are getting adequate sleep. People tend to find it difficult to actually stay awake until their prescribed bedtime. This is a good thing! Once you get into bed you will fall asleep quickly, permitting the mind to only associate sleep with the bed. Please note that you are allowed 5 1/2 hours in bed even if you are getting less sleep.

If you wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself lying there for more than 25 minutes, get out of bed and engage in a calming activity. Examples of calming activities include guided relaxation, reading, or watching a boring TV show on the couch. Head back to bed as soon as you feel sleepy.

Why it Works

In addition to making new sleep-promoting associations, restricting sleep increases our body’s biological drive for sleep. Think of it like hunger. The longer we go without food, the stronger our drive for hunger becomes. Our brain will work harder to fall asleep the longer we go without it. We cannot live without sleep and eventually the brain will make sure we are getting it. This can be a reassuring concept after being on a sleep restriction schedule. It can be uncomfortable in the short term but very rewarding long term.

This is one aspect of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy used for insomnia that can help individuals to improve their sleep issues. Please keep in mind that there are other components of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia and it is best to work directly with a therapist. A therapist at The Light Program can look deeper into possible thought patterns, emotions, and other behaviors that may be contributing to sleep issues and develop a plan to better sleep.

If you’re interested in working with a therapist for insomnia, contact The Light Program.