There are so many factors that go into getting a good night’s sleep, but perhaps the most important of all is to try to get enough sleep. The amount of sleep you need changes as you age, and the health benefits of getting the appropriate amount of shut-eye are numerous. One upside is hitting all the necessary stages of sleep that make it such a restorative and necessary process to our health. Figuring out how to do that isn’t a mystery either, thanks to helpful tools like a sleep cycle calculator that can pinpoint the best times to fall asleep based on when you’d like to wake up to achieve all those needed zzzs and stages.
How to use a sleep cycle calculator
In general, most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Someone who gets this recommended amount will generally go through between four and six sleep cycles (all of the sleep stages), according to Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of sleep health at Sleepopolis. “Each stage of sleep plays a different role in promoting physical and mental health, so it’s important to fully cycle through all of them,” she says. “For example, deep sleep is important for physical restoration and muscle repair, while REM sleep is important for cognitive function and memory consolidation.”
“Each stage of sleep plays a different role in promoting physical and mental health, so it’s important to fully cycle through all of them.”—Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of sleep health at Sleepopolis
Here’s how this sleep cycle calculator works: You input the time you’d like to wake up, and then it will produce some times you could consider falling asleep, and also roughly how many sleep cycles you’d go through for each time.
For example, if you want to wake up at 7 a.m., the sleep cycle calculator says you could achieve about six sleep cycles through nine hours of sleep if you go to bed at 10 p.m., versus only three cycles if you go to bed at 2:30 in the morning.
The importance of getting enough sleep and setting a consistent wake time
Waking up at the same time as much as possible is an integral part of good sleep, according to Jade Wu, PhD, sleep psychologist and author of Hello Sleep. Dr. Wu says the most important part of ensuring good sleep is to set that anchor on the back end (i.e. a regular wake time) to be sure you’re not jet lagging yourself by creating inconsistent sleep/wake times.
You can always go to bed earlier if you’re tired, but changing your wake time (even to try to catch up on sleep over the weekend) can throw your circadian clock out of whack; however, staying on a steady schedule for the appropriate number of hours will ensure you stay on track and hit all the stages of sleep you need. It’ll also make this process easier.
“If you get enough sleep most of the time—and sleep at about the same time every day—then your sleep cycles will naturally sort of fall into place and be pretty consistent from night to night and your brain will sort of wake you up at the correct time,” says Dr. Wu.
While these are some general rules of thumb for better sleep, ultimately, sleep is highly individualized, says Raj Dasgupta, MD, pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist with Keck Medicine of USC. So if you’re utilizing tools like a sleep cycle calculator, it’s best to use them as a general information source and not a rigid guideline.
What’s better, according to Dr. Dasgupta, is to listen to your body’s needs and try to sleep when you feel tired. Don’t force anything that doesn’t feel right. “If my calculator tells me to go to bed at 8 p.m. and I’m not sleepy, that could be counter-productive,” he says.
Remember that the quality of your sleep is also important. To ensure a good night’s rest, both Dr. Wu and Dr. Dasgupta say to follow good sleep hygiene practices: Limit screen time and exposure to blue light before bed; make your room dark, quiet, and cold (specifically between 60 and 68 degrees F) to ensure the best environment for drifting off; and do soothing activities like meditation to get yourself in the mood to wind down. If you do all the things that ensure you’re getting the recommended amount of good sleep you need each night, you’ll be floating off to dream land and cycling through all the sleep stages in no time.