How to Deal with a Roommate Who's Disrupting Your Sleep
The key to a good education is a good night's sleep. For some new college students, that can mean mastering Roommate Diplomacy 101. It's not just a roommate you don't see eye to eye with that can make sleep more difficult in a college dorm, though. You might also have to contend with noisy hallways, parties out in the common area, late-night cram sessions, and a less-than-comfortable bed.
Indeed, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine says poor sleep is “prevalent" among university students. And surprise, surprise: “Students with symptoms of sleep disorders are more likely to receive poor grades."
“Sufficient sleep must become the prerequisite for every college student," says Terry Cralle, RN, certified clinical sleep educator and Saatva sleep consultant. For people aged 18 to 25, sufficient sleep is a solid seven to nine hours a night, per National Sleep Foundation guidelines.
That's no academic footnote—it's a wake-up call. And all the more reason to join forces with one's roommate. Whether you're the one who's living with a roommate for the first time or you just moved your child into their college dorm, these strategies can help make it easier to get much-needed shuteye.
Choose a roommate with similar sleep habits (if you can)
One of you may be an early riser, for example, while the other could be a night owl. One may love entertaining new friends over cookies FedExed from home, while the other may be an introvert who views evenings as sacrosanct quiet time. One may love blasting the TV in bed, while the other needs total darkness and silence to fall asleep. (Hannah Fegley, a licensed clinical social worker and counselor in the student assistance program at Johns Hopkins University, says she's surprised by the number of students who fall asleep to Netflix—to their detriment as well as their roommate's.)
Potato, po-tah-to, tomato, to-mah-to, no wonder some colleges and universities have started querying incoming freshman about their sleep-schedule preferences. Boston University's “Roommate Success Kit," for example, asks up top what time you like to go to bed—not just on weekdays but on weekends too. It's not exactly Match.com, but it can help two people at least share an alarm clock.
“I believe in the theory of sleep compatibility," says Michael Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist also known as the "Sleep Doctor," who claims to have saved more relationships than a marriage counselor by focusing on needed fixes when sleep habits clash.
Get to know your roommate—and check in regularly
Of course, you won't always end up with someone whose sleep schedule is compatible with yours. That's why those in the know say the earlier you can talk those differences out, the better. In other words, don't wait until your clashing sleeping patterns have become so apparent that nerves are frayed.
“If you're living with a person you need to be able to talk to them in person," says Paige Rechtman, a licensed psychotherapist with a practice in New York City. Right from the beginning—like maybe Day One. “Have a conversation before any conflict arises," Rechtman says. “Solve any problem beforehand—nip it in the bud."
Breus offers this as an opener: “'Do you snore? Yes? So let's figure this out.' Don't wait until it's, 'Dude, you snore and you're killing me!'"
Future check-ins, as awkward as scheduling them may seem at first, can deflect tension before it turns into an impasse. Roommates can agree to meet over coffee every Thursday at 3 p.m., say. “Plan out those conversations in advance, so you both can think about it ahead of time," Rechtman says (and forget texting as a substitute for meeting face-to-face). “Take a look at how things are going. Is anyone harboring feelings about anything? Talk it out."
If one roommate likes to burn the midnight oil—to the tune of Drake or Ariana Grande—“address how each person will compromise to make things more fair," she continues, “like, please use headphones and I'll try to use earplugs." Or, “on weekends, an hour later will work for me—but if I have an early class, can you be more mindful?" The idea is to work toward specific solutions both people can live with. For future lawyers who love to see it in writing, there are even roommate agreement contracts.
Don't forget to overlook common space, like dorm hallways—aka party central—says Cralle, who favors polite do-not-disturb-please wall signs.
Take additional steps to resolve roommate sleep conflicts
If discussing stuff early and often isn't cutting it, bring in a third party—the dorm's resident adviser, for example, or a student counselor, who can facilitate a conversation between the two of you. When a student approaches Fegley with a case of conflict avoidance, she finds role-playing helpful. “I tell them it's about having a healthy conversation."
A resident advisor or student counselor can also suggest some practical fixes, such as using a white noise machine and sleep mask. Both of these can help block out distractions and make it easier to get adequate sleep. “Get what you need," says Breus. “Then try to be consistent with your wake-up time: If it's 7 during the week, then 7:30 on weekends is a good idea too." Just think about how much more studying you can get done when you wake up bright and early on the weekend.
Sleep is essential for student athletes. Consult our student athlete sleep playbook for tips on helping college athletes perform their best.