Is watching TV before bed a bad idea?

Don't let Jack Bauer terrorise your sleep routine! Credit: sunnyd_57’s photostream Flickr/Creative Commons

Watching TV is a common pastime in the evenings. Yet many sleep experts would tell you that watching TV before bed is a bad idea if you want to get a good night’s sleep. Turn the TV, and all other electrical devices (computer, radio, computer games), off at least two hours before sleep time, they say. Or should it be three hours before? Ultimately, I think, it depends on:

  1. what you’re watching immediately before you go to bed and how you’re affected by it; and
  2. whether you’re able to control (i.e. limit) your TV viewing so that it does not encroach on your sleeping time.

Taking each point in turn:

1. What you’re watching and how you’re affected by it

If you watch a violent or tense TV programme before bed and you’re sensitive to these images, it follows that you’re unlikely to be relaxed enough to sleep immediately afterwards. For me, watching 24 immediately before bed is a no-no, as I’m too wired to fall asleep.

Similarly, if you’re watching a TV programme that you find very stimulating (for me, this might be Question Time or The West Wing) just before bed, then it’s likely that you’ll find it difficult to sleep as your brain will be too active. You’ll need to do something relaxing and peaceful afterwards, to slow down your mental activity in preparation for sleep.

Having said this, in my experience watching TV can help to calm an overactive mind at the end of a busy day and, for some, it may be an important cue for bedtime.  In my days as a city lawyer I often used TV (and the odd glass of wine too) as a way to switch off before bed. And my other half regularly spends the last 15 minutes or so of the day watching the music channels to relax before bed.

2. Controlling your evening TV viewing

A study carried out by the BBC’s Newsround programme (as reported on the BBC Breakfast show on 19 February 2010) concluded that modern technology keeps our children up at night, preventing them from getting a good nights’ sleep. The study suggested that children miss out on sleep because they stay up watching TV or playing on computer games.

It’s not just children who stay up too late watching TV when they should be sleeping. A study published in the Journal Sleep by Drs. Mathias Basner and David F. Dinges in June 2009 (“Dubious Bargain: Trading Sleep for Leno and Letterman”) found that many Americans let television dictate when they go to sleep. They concluded that “giving up some TV viewing in the evening should be possible to reduce chronic sleep debt and promote adequate sleep in those who need it”.

This is interesting. Just the other night I accidentally started watching The Bodyguard on TV. I’ve seen it many times before, but despite my good intentions for an early night, suddenly I was hooked and I ended up watching it until it’s conclusion (an hour after I’d planned to go to bed).

If this regularly happens to you and your sleep is suffering, it’s time to alter your bedtime routine to make it more sleep-friendly. Set yourself a cut-off time for TV viewing (any must-see viewing after this cut-off point could be recorded using Sky Plus or your DVD recorder) and do something less engaging and relaxing instead.

A word on watching TV in bed

Again, many sleep experts warn against watching TV in bed. They advise us to reserve our beds for sleeping and romance only, so that we associate our beds and bedrooms with falling asleep. This rigid approach may be necessary for some, but if watching a little TV in bed helps you to relax and drop off to sleep, don’t worry. Do be careful to turn the TV off when you start dozing though, otherwise it’s likely to disturb your sleep during the night.

Ultimately, I think, it’s about personal choice and common sense – enjoy your evening viewing if it helps you to relax but don’t let your TV take precedence over your precious sleep.

Comments

  1. I’m a 13 year old male, and my bedtime routine is that I watch 4 episodes of Only Fools and Horses, then I turn the TV off and go to sleep. I do have sleeping issues, as I rarely sleep quickly; but I need my tv to unwind, otherwise I’d go to bed worrying about school tomorrow. So I think that too much TV is a bad idea, but watching a little is enough to help me unwind and settle before sleeping, who agrees?

  2. The most important thing is to go to bed relaxed and calm so if watching tv helps you switch off then great, keep going with that. But you can also get the same thing from reading a book or magazine or listening to music. I guess its important not to think that you ‘need’ something in order to sleep as any day that you don’t have access to that pre bedtime ritual then you will feel that you won’t sleep thus potentially leading to dependency. Although I’m not sure there has even been a case of dependency on only fools and horses!

  3. David,

    As someone who deals with people who have trouble getting to sleep everyday I am firmly in the camp that if it helps you fall asleep and sleep better then there is nothing wrong with it. Previously we had some rules called the Sleep Hygiene rules which said your room should be dark and quiet. This would drive me mad and I would never get to sleep and thankfully popular opinion seems to be moving toward the idea that we are all individuals, if something works for you and you don’t feel tired during the day then don’t worry about it…..

    However Gekko has a good point. Sometimes we can become too reliant on something to help us sleep and if it is something that cannot be replicated if you sleep away from home it may cuase you some problems in later life… David it would be good to hear whether you feel tired during the day….

    Sweet Dreams zzzzzz

    • The Sleep Geek and Gekko,

      To let you understand, I have Aspergers Syndrome, a form of Autism, and although you might find it strange that I depend on my TV to sleep. I enjoy it, it’s not something that I don’t enjoy; I need it plus I like it, and at 10.30pm I turn my television off and lie in bed relaxing if I can’t sleep.

      Yes, I feel very tired during the day, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays, when we’re reflecting on the weekend; but once the shock of being back into the week is over, I’m fine during the day. So Gekko, I’m sorry if you find it strange, but I need it.

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