Do you remember your child’s early years? When your teen was a baby, you probably had a nighttime routine—perhaps even an elaborate one—to encourage him or her to sleep through the night. That bedtime routine may have morphed during the toddler years to include a book or other nightly ritual and continued to evolve over the years before you finally extricated yourself from the process. 

It’s time, now, for a new routine—specifically, helping your teen come up with one they can do on their own to prime themselves for sleep. 

Being intentional about winding down for the night can be powerful, says UCSF physician scientist Cheri Mah, who regularly recommends it to the professional athletes she works with “as a way to transition from [their] crazy schedule into getting themselves prepared to sleep for the night.”

Developing a wind-down routine that works

As for what the routine includes, it’s up to the individual, but the most important aspect is that it’s consistent, says pediatric sleep psychologist Lisa Meltzer. The “same activities, same order, same time, every night make a big difference.”

Here are some ideas to consider:

Listen up: Listening to an audiobook or podcast can be an effective way to wind down, Meltzer says. 

Some of her patients even tune in to a favorite video or TV show, flipping their phones over so they’re listening but not watching. “The idea is that it’s just the audio,” she says, which helps “quiet their brains.”

Dim all the lights:  Another consideration is the overall lighting in your home.

In a recent study published in Nature, researchers measured evening light levels in participants’ homes and the effect on their circadian systems. They found that homes with energy-efficient lights, which typically emit more blue light than traditional incandescent bulbs, had more of an impact on melatonin levels.

The results also showed that individual sensitivity to light varied quite a bit. That said, though, “the average home would suppress melatonin by nearly 50% in the average person,” the authors concluded. 

Why this matters: melatonin is what primes us for bedtime. If the timing for when this hormone is released is delayed, our sensation of sleepiness is also delayed.  

One effective, simple technique is turning down the lights in the house at night. “After 10 p.m., I dim all the rooms,” says Galit Levi Dunietz, a sleep epidemiologist and assistant professor of neurology at the University of Michigan.

Another option teens may find appealing is red or orange mood lighting in their rooms, which is considered less likely to affect melatonin and more conducive for sleep.

Think pink: Both light and sound can be characterized by color. Light contains the entire rainbow of wavelengths from shortest (blue/violet) to longest (red). Sound is also classified by waves, with different frequencies associated with various colors. Just as white light contains all colors of the spectrum, white noise contains all the audible frequencies. 

Pink noise is often preferred for sleep and relaxation, as is pink or red light (at the other end of the spectrum from the blue light that boosts alertness).

Bring on the noise: You’re probably already familiar with “white noise,” a hissing static-y sound containing all of the frequencies of sound. It’s similar to white light in that it contains the entire spectrum, and it can mask disruptions that could otherwise disrupt sleep.

Because of this, though, white noise isn’t always the best for slumber. “If the volume is turned up, it really is quite distracting,” says Azizi Seixas, associate director for the Translational Sleep and Circadian Sciences Program at the Miller School of Medicine.

So what’s better than white noise? 

Pink noise, according to Seixas. “It essentially suppresses the volume of the higher frequencies, so what you’re getting is a much more mellow emission of noise.” (And if you’re wondering what “pink” sounds like, it’s more akin to water in nature—the susurring rhythm of waves on the beach, or the patter of rain.)

Other colors can also be relaxing, such as brown noise, which sounds “more like a rumble,” he says.

In his own household, he’s found brown noise helps his young child wind down in the evenings. “Especially for bedtime, when he might be kind of amped . . . it centers him.”

Take a bath: A lengthier wind-down routine might also include a relaxing bath—something the US Army now recommends for its soldiers. In addition to encouraging naps, the Army’s 2020 health and fitness manual suggests “taking a warm shower or bath” to “facilitate the transition to sleep.”

Whether it’s warm or hot is certainly up to personal preference, but, according to Matthew Walker,  founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, a hot bath is a way to relax, plus “the drop in body temperature after getting out of the bath may help you feel sleepy.”

Don’t rely on medication: It’s tempting to turn to supplements or prescription remedies, but the sleep experts I spoke to generally aren’t fans. 

Perhaps the most commonly used is melatonin, which is widely available and relatively inexpensive. It’s classified as a dietary supplement, which means it’s far less regulated than either prescription or over-the-counter medications. As a result, “you don’t know what you’re getting,” Meltzer points out—a worrisome prospect, given that you’re supplementing a hormone that plays a critical role in regulating your body’s rhythms.

Among the issues she and others cited: Melatonin levels in various products can vary significantly, and there may be other undisclosed ingredients as well. 

“My preference is that kids don’t use it,” says Meltzer. “For the general teen, I don’t think it’s necessary.”

When it comes to prescription sleep medication for teens, neurologist Chris Winter takes a similarly dim view: “Show me one study that shows [it’s] . . . going to improve sleep quality or even duration significantly.” 

While it may take some time for your teen to figure out what type of wind-down activities works best, establishing a routine can be a powerful way to transition into a bedtime mindset. After all, our brains don’t have on/off switches the way computers do. Instead, Meltzer recommends thinking of them as having dimmer switches. “It takes them a while to shut down,” she explains, “and that bedtime routine gives the brain time to power down.”

Excerpted from The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, And How Parents And Schools Can Help Them Thrive (Mango Publishing, 2022)