Do you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow? Or, do you relax for a few minutes before drifting off? Perhaps, you toss and turn frustratingly for 20 minutes before finally getting to sleep. The time it takes to fall asleep is called sleep latency, and people’s sleep latency generally falls into one of several categories.
How Long Does It Take to Fall Asleep? Onset Sleep Latency Decoded
- Less than 5 minutes
- 5-20 minutes
- 20-45 minutes
- Over 45 minutes
There’s a sweet spot when it comes to the time it takes you to fall asleep each night. You should go to sleep quickly after the lights go off, but not too quickly. The time it takes to fall asleep is directly related to your overall sleep efficiency and whether you experience sleep deprivation. When you get your bedtime routine and sleep habits just right, it helps lay the foundation for a great night’s rest.
Additionally, how fast you’re falling asleep can be an important indicator of whether you’re dealing with a sleep disorder like narcolepsy, sleep apnea, or chronic insomnia.
Our sleeping is divided into specific stages: There’s REM sleep, where our dreaming occurs, and non-REM sleep, which takes us through three stages into our deepest sleep. Our level of sleep latency has a big influence over whether we’re able to stay asleep and move through all four stages of good sleep in a healthy sleep cycle throughout the night.
What Is Sleep Latency?
Sleep onset latency, also known as sleep latency or SOL, is simply the time it takes for you to fall asleep. In other words, the time between full wakefulness to usually the lightest of the non-REM sleep stages. In an original set of sleep studies around sleep latency, the time it took participants to fall asleep was directly correlated to how sleep-deprived they were.
The typical test used to measure sleep latency is the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT), which is designed to measure how long it takes someone to fall asleep in a quiet environment. A physician might ask someone to go through an MSLT if they report excessive daytime sleepiness, since it’s a good tool for diagnosing sleep disorders like sleep apnea, narcolepsy and others.
Sleep latency is directly related to sleep efficiency. If a person spends the majority of his/her time in bed actually asleep, that’s considered sleep efficient. A sleep efficiency score of 85% is normal, while anything above 90% is considered very good. If a person is able to fall asleep quickly, chances are a good night’s sleep will follow since the two sleep qualities go hand in hand.
Sleep is divided into two main phases – the light sleep, non-rapid-eye-movement stages and the REM stage. A person who falls asleep relatively quickly is more likely to move efficiently through all the stages of the sleep cycle. Your sleep latency will fall into one of four categories.
How Long Does It Take to Fall Asleep? Onset Sleep Latency Decoded
As it turns out, the time it takes you to fall asleep can tell you a lot about whether you’re getting enough restful and restorative sleep in general. Sleep latency is more important than we ever dreamed (pun intended).
Less Than 5 Minutes
While it might seem ideal to go straight to sleep as soon as the lights are off, falling asleep in less than five minutes could actually mean that you’re in a sleep deficit. In sleep latency studies, this kind of sleep latency is coded as representing severe sleepiness, or sleep debt. People who are in a state of sleep deprivation can experience both physical and mental fatigue and often fall asleep very quickly. In fact, they fall asleep much more quickly than those who aren’t experiencing a sleep deficit. Of all the factors that influence sleep latency, sleep debt may have the largest impact.
If you find yourself falling asleep in less than five minutes, that’s a good sign that you are sleep deficient and should try to get a little more sleep each night. How much sleep do you need? That varies from person to person. Try backing up your bedtime by 15 minutes a week until you’re at a point where you wake up more refreshed and better rested after consistently getting a good night’s sleep. That’s a great way to determine how many hours of sleep you need to feel your best.
Sleep studies tend to code this level of sleep latency as normal sleepiness, so it indicates that you’re in a healthy range of sleep effectiveness and not in sleep debt. This is the sweet spot: It means falling asleep fairly quickly, so there’s no counting the minutes as you lie there awake, but you’re also not dropping off so immediately that it’s a sign from your body and brain that you’re exhausted. According to many sleep scientists, in fact, the ideal sleep latency time is between 15 and 20 minutes.
This would be considered a moderate sleepiness level of sleep latency. While it’s not exactly in the ideal range for sleep latency, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a major sleep disorder, either. The important thing with this category is to be aware of it and when it shifts in either direction. A shorter or longer sleep latency may indicate issues with sleep debt or impending sleep deprivation.
Over 45 Minutes
We know this can feel frustrating. Sleep is one of the most important elements we need for overall health and well-being, and it’s aggravating when you have trouble falling asleep. If you’ve been in bed more than 20 to 30 minutes without feeling sleepy, get up and do something else rather than lying there letting your brain churn. Do something quiet to lower your heart rate and blood pressure, such as listening to music, meditating, or reading a book. When you feel yourself getting sleepy, then go back to bed and try again to fall asleep.
If you’re experiencing this category of sleep latency it may mean that you’re already sleeping too much and your body and brain simply aren’t ready to rest. It could also be a sign that you’re grappling with either transient or chronic insomnia. Perhaps you drank too much caffeine too close to bedtime or are anxious about a source of stress in your life. Maybe your circadian rhythm needs to be reset because of jet lag. In any case, you can start by adjusting your sleep habits and see if that helps you fall asleep more quickly.
How Can I Improve My Sleep Latency?
If you’ve undergone an MSLT, you may already be working with your physician on ways to improve your sleep latency and sleep patterns. But if you’ve noticed that you’re not hitting that sweet spot of a 15-20-minute sleep latency time or have trouble falling asleep, there are a few things you can do to help improve your sleep efficiency and fall asleep faster.
You’ll want to put in place some effective sleep hygiene practices that lead to a restful night’s sleep. Here are a few suggestions:
- Avoid blue light before bedtime
- Avoid both caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime
- Go to bed and wake up at a consistent time every day – even weekends and holidays
- Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark
- Read, listen to music, or engage in another quiet, relaxing activity before you turn out the lights
These are just a few ways you can help prepare your mind and body for successful sleep.
The Average Time It Takes to Fall Asleep
For many sleepers, that magic moment when the lights go out can be the most blissful of the whole day. For others, the tossing and turning that follow lights-out may be a sign of insomnia. While sleep latency varies from person to person naturally, it can have a major effect on your overall sleep-wake cycle and the quality of sleep.
Talk with your doctor if you feel like your sleep latency is trying to warn you about deeper sleep problems. Otherwise, try a few of the suggestions here to modify your sleep schedule and sleep hygiene in order to find the sweet spot for the right kind of good sleep you need.