Dr. Rebecca Robbins on Sleep Science

Meet Dr. Rebecca Robbins, Sleep Scientist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. We got the chance to interview her about her top sleep tips, the importance of routine and her own bedtime rituals.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep is food for our brain and our body. We all know the consequences of insufficient sleep, and they are rather immediate. We wake up after a poor night of sleep and are more irritable and anxious; we are likely to indulge in higher calorie meals and exert less energy in our workouts; we also accomplish fewer tasks at a lower quality than when we are well-rested. However, when we can make sleep a priority – that is, getting enough sleep and good quality sleep – we wake up refreshed, in a more positive mood, we accomplish more in less time, and are better able to make other healthy decisions.

What is a typical day for you as a sleep researcher? 

Each of us has a different preference for nighttime or morning. I am a true morning person! I get my best work done early in the morning, so I protect this time as best I can. I wake up, make coffee, and either fit in a quick workout or head to my computer to write for a few hours. Then, I like to take a walk in the early afternoon (permitting meetings) outside. Getting natural light exposure is actually a really important part of a healthy lifestyle, particularly when it comes to sleep! This helps us sync our circadian rhythm to our environments.  I enjoy having a hearty lunch, including grains, vegetables, and a protein of some kind. The afternoons I generally spend in meetings discussing our grants or other research projects at various stages from recruitment to data collection and analysis.

Then, I love having an early dinner, around 5:30 or 6pm, plug back in for a bit more work, then spend the rest of the evening relaxing with my husband and our dog Clive. We like to play games, read, and enjoy watching a show from time to time. Finally, 60 minutes before my bedtime (which is 10:30pm) I power down from electronics and work, and start my bedtime routine.

Why is a bedtime routine so important?

The time before bed is vital to start changing gears from your busy day to the nighttime. Believe it or not sleep is a process that takes time!  It is near impossible – unless you are completely sleep deprived – to go from a busy day to falling right asleep. Instead our brains take time to power down. In the 60 minutes or so before bed I start to power down my phone, sign off social media and check email the last time, then commit to relaxing activities, like taking a bath (as many nights of the week as I can!), reading for fun, and my skincare routine. I consciously start to slow my breathing and consciously step into a different mindset as bedtime approaches. Picking a bedtime routine that is right for you is vital so that your brain starts to learn that what comes next is sleep.

If you could boil it down, what are your top three tips for anyone struggling with sleep?

Sleep is so critical for our health, yet many of us struggle with good sleep. It is important to know that first, sleep difficulties can be common and they come and go from time to time for all of us. Try not to get worked up when you experience sleep issues, instead, a few simple tips can help improve your sleep quality and help you cope with issues as they arise.

1. Set aside time before bed to start a soothing bedtime routine.

This is one small change that can go a long way toward better sleep. Even if you take the 10-15 minutes before your target bedtime to do something soothing, like taking a warm bath or reading a book. Commit to not checking your phone at this time and focus in these moments before sleep on positive thoughts and happy memories from the day, let go of anything bothering you, but if you struggle with this, write down whatever is bothering you on a sheet of paper.

2. Toss and turn? Get out of bed.

It is a myth that staying in bed will allow you to get back to sleep. Instead, you are building heat in your mattress and causing you to associate your bed with stress. Break the cycle by leaving bed whenever this happens, try meditation or reading a few pages in a book outside the bedroom  ideally and in another room of the house/your apartment. Live in a studio? Find a comfortable seat on your carpet or an armchair. The key is to change the scene and get back into bed when tired.

3. Keep your sleep schedule consistent.

One of the silver linings of the COVID pandemic is that we have less variance in our schedules from one day to the next, and we have seen research show that individuals are sticking to a more consistent sleep schedule – falling asleep and waking up at the same time – than ever before. Consistency in our sleep schedules is critical! This allows our brains and bodies to know when they should be tired. A consistent schedule will help you fall asleep faster into deeper sleep.


What do you wear to bed?

I love pajama sets, usually a top and pants or shorts in the summertime. I always am on the lookout for light, breathable fabrics.

What is on your bedside table?

The novel I am reading at the moment, which is Doctor Zhivago, a thick hand cream with a soothing scent like lavender, and ear plugs (I sleep with these almost every night!)

Do you have any recurring dreams?

I do not often remember my dreams, but when I do I always try to hold on to them, sadly they only last a few moments after waking.

Which scent makes you think of bedtime?

Scents are directly tied to the relaxation response, so I love using creams or essential oils with lavender or other soothing scents close to bedtime.

What is your guilty pleasure?!

My guilty pleasures are coffee and red wine – neither of which are particularly good for sleep so I have to be diligent not to overdo it!

How do you engage in self-care?

Self-care to me is the time leading up to bed. I protect this time at all costs. I have spent my day often mentoring students, writing papers, working on collaborative projects, but the nighttime is mine and I try to protect it for things that soothe me like a warm bath.

Did you have a bedtime routine growing up?

Yes! A bedtime routine is the best gift a parent can give their child. Growing up we read lots of books and spent time snuggling and talking about positive things from the day. Frankly, what we do with children is what we could all learn from as adults!

What was your favourite childhood bedtime story?

My favorite childhood book is Library Lion.