5 Sleep Tips for Early Birds Who Nest with Night Owls

/ September 3, 2019

It's a common conundrum among couples: You're a morning person, your partner is a night owl. When you're ready to hit the hay, their evening is just getting started.

Fortunately, there are strategies for managing mismatched sleep schedules that don't involve one partner staring at the ceiling wide awake or trying desperately to keep from nodding off mid-Netflix.

But first, a little bit about why internal body clocks, a.k.a. circadian rhythms, vary from person to person in the first place.

The science behind "night owls" and "morning larks"

“The science of 'night owls' and 'morning larks' is based on what we know about how our circadian rhythms for wake and sleep are generated," says Jeffrey Durmer, MD, PhD, co-founder of FusionHealth.

At the back of your eyes, he explains, are the optic nerves, which transmit visual signals to your brain—specifically, to groups of neurons called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN).

The SCN has neurons, or nerve cells, with circadian rhythms of their own, Durmer says, and this rhythm is in large part genetic. “Some individuals have an SCN with very long intrinsic circadian rhythms, which predisposes them to getting sleepy later in the 24-hour cycle, which in turn causes later wake times in the morning." Those are your classic "night owls."

Those with a shorter SCN circadian rhythm, on the other hand, are people who get sleepy earlier and wake up earlier: the "morning larks."

But circadian rhythms aren't set in stone. There are ways to make adjustments—and barring that, ways to find time together that don't require tinkering with your body's clock.

Related: How an at-home DNA test changed the way I sleep

How to adjust your sleep schedule

Here are five strategies to bring the sleep imbalanced more into alignment.

1. Reset your clock

“The SCN is exquisitely sensitive and responsive to light," says Durmer. “Most people have the ability to shift-change by a few hours using changes in light and dark cues."

If you're a night owl, a blast of light in the morning can reset your circadian rhythm to act earlier so that you can function in the morning, he says. You'll also want to cut back on well-lit evening activities (i.e., screen time or bright lights).

For morning larks? Sleeping in a super-dark room and keeping the room dark even in the morning can help delay your clock by avoiding a.m. light exposure. “In the later afternoon and evening, larks begin to wane. Using light at these times can boost wake so that sleep onset occurs later, which will allow for a later wake-up time in the morning," says Durmer.

If you're flexible about which partner should be the one to adjust their clock, Durmer notes that some evidence suggests night owls may have more malleable circadian rhythms than morning larks.

Just shift slowly, in increments of 30 minutes or an hour. “The faster someone is shifted can predict the impact on neurocognitive function—alertness, memory, creativity, judgment, decision making, complex task completion, and executive function," he says.

2. Ask for a WFH day

Does this scenario sound familiar? You go to bed at 9 p.m., your partner follows at midnight, and then you're up and out the door at 7 a.m. while they sleep till 8, leaving you little time to spend together. See if you or your partner can work from home now and then, suggests Durmer. It won't impact sleep schedules, but it will cut out commuting time, which can leave you with an hour (or more) of time to spend with each another.

3. Maximize together time

If your schedules don't overlap at all, you can wind up feeling like your relationship is a long-distance one. One fix: Spend time together right when you get home, even if it's just for 30 or 60 minutes, suggests Michael Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sleep expert. During this time, talk through the day and update each other on important happenings. It's all too easy to miss this opportunity to connect, he says. Finding time for it can cut your anxiety and stress levels.

Come nighttime, the person who goes to bed later could hop in bed with the earlier sleeper, reading a book or watching something on a dimly lit tablet until the early bird dozes off, says Breus. To avoid being disruptive, stay on top of the covers and don't slip away until you're sure your partner is asleep (wait an extra 10 minutes or so, he advises).

Related: Why my husband and I sleep in separate beds

4. Coordinate days off

Can't quite line up during the week? It's fine for one person sleep in a guest room during the week if they want to stay up later than the other, says Breus. On weekends or days off, when you have a little bit more flexibility with sleep and wake times, bunk up.

5. Flip your mindset

Bummed that you and your partner aren't 100% lined up? Don't be. Some research finds people tend to sleep better alone, which is precisely what happens if you go to bed a few hours earlier or stay in bed a few hours later. So as long as you're making time for time together, a misaligned sleep schedule can have its benefits.

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Does your partner saw logs all night long? Here's how to sleep with someone who snores.

Cassie Shortsleeve

Cassie Shortsleeve is a Boston-based freelance writer and editor with a decade's worth of experience reporting for the country's top health, travel, and parenting magazines. She's also the founder of Dear Sunday, an online platform for new and soon-to-be moms. She lives in Boston, MA with her husband and their daughter Sunday.

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