By Laura McMullen
Making new friends! Enjoying more freedom! Learning new things! Getting plenty of sleep!
OK, there’s a lot for incoming college students to get excited about, and maybe sleep isn’t too high on the list. But in order to handle these life changes while staying healthy and feeling your best, you’ve got to try to get seven to eight hours of quality sleep most nights. And that may be easier said than done. Between night owl roommates, more social and extracurricular activities, extra studying and loads of freedom to stay up as late as you’d like, sleep may fall to the bottom of your priority list.
It’s not easy to work in regular sleep, but it’s probably more manageable than writing that 10-page term paper or resisting the dining halls’ bottomless ice cream, so we’re sure you can manage. Here’s how to enjoy a well-rested college experience:
Talk openly with your roommate. It’s 3 a.m. You’re trying to sleep, and your roommate is mid-“Game of Thrones” binging. Or he’s fooling around with someone 20 feet from you. Or he’s actually sleeping – and snoring deafeningly. What do you do? One route would be to not say anything for fear of creating an awkward situation, all while becoming grumpy and more sleep deprived, and thus grumpier. Here’s the problem: “Silence is often viewed as consent in roommate situations,” says Harlan Cohen, best-selling author of “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College.” “It’s easy to blame your roommate, but it all starts with you.”
Cohen preaches the “uncomfortable rule,” which is a pact between roommates dictating that if either of you feels uncomfortable with something the other roommate is doing, you have to tell him or her within 24 to 48 hours. “If you set that precedent early, you have the freedom to be honest,” he says. And once you speak up, chances are, you’ll find simple solutions. Explain that you have 8 a.m. class, and could he please wear headphones while watching TV after 11? Maybe create a “no hookups while I’m here” rule. Or simply ask if you can flip, wake or throw something at the roommate when he snores.
If, after giving it a few tries, you and your roommate can’t work out a system that allows you to get some shut-eye, consider requesting a new room (and roommate).
[Read: How to Be Healthy in College.]
Adjust your environment. You probably won’t be able to create a Ritz-Carlton suite from your shoebox dorm room and twin mattress, but do what you can to create a dark, cool, comfortable sleeping environment. If your bed is near the door, where you can hear the hustle and bustle from the hallway, move it to somewhere else in the room, Cohen says. Try hanging curtains around your bed to add privacy and block light, and consider adding white noise, he adds. You can buy white noise generators online and in big-box stores, or you can check out free websites like simplynoise.com. If the room is still too loud – perhaps it’s near a high-traffic part of the floor – talk to your resident assistant about possibly changing rooms. Many campuses also have dorm buildings with quiet hours, which you may want to consider.
Set personal boundaries. "We’ve all been sabotaged by one more movie, one more show, one more drink, one more kiss, one more cuddle," Cohen says. And there will be no parents around to question the midnight parties, pizza runs or video game tournaments. You’re your own “sleep boss,” as Cohen puts it. Sure, it’s good to be the boss, but the job comes with some responsibility. If you’ve got, say, an early morning final, you’ve got to decide an appropriate bedtime and stick to it. If you want to stay up late – one of the perks of being your own boss! – figure out which nights you can go out and which nights you ought to stay in, Cohen suggests. Do you have an 8 a.m. mandatory-attendance English class every Thursday? Maybe resign to a no-keg-stand policy for Wednesday nights this semester.
[Read: Your Brain on Booze.]
Steal naps when you can. If you’re not getting much sleep at night, supplement with naps while your roommate isn’t around, Cohen says. But note that while some naps work wonders to recharge your battery, long or poorly timed naps can make you feel groggy afterward or affect your sleep quality come bedtime. So nap wisely. While everyone’s sweet spot is different, as a general guideline, theMayo Clinic suggests shooting for midafternoon naps of about 10 to 30 minutes long.
Beware of overextending. Maybe you went a little crazy picking up pamphlets at the student involvement fair, or you were too ambitious while signing up for classes. So by the time you go to eight hours of classes, and then eat, and then audition for the play, and then play your rec softball game, and then go to French club and then (maybe) study, you’re crawling into bed at 2 a.m. And then you have to wake up for class in five hours! Whew.
"This is the first time in your life where you’re the one who sets your own limits and creates your own boundaries," Cohen says. "And most of us suck at it." Prioritize your interests and needs – sleep should be pretty high on the list, by the way – and consider dropping whatever activity is left at the bottom.
Remember sleep hygiene basics. A lot of your old routine will be different in college. Your workload may increase. Your friend group may change. Your interests may shift. But the formula for good sleep hygiene will stay the same: appropriate, consistent bedtimes and less caffeine, alcohol, exercise and screen time as you approach those times. Getting that routine right will go a long way to helping you calmly navigate the changes college brings. “When you’re sleep deprived, you’re impatient, you can’t think clearly, and everything is bigger,” Cohen says. “College is big enough. Take care of yourself.”