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If you’re having trouble getting quality shut-eye, a sleep diary may help you uncover some of the reasons why.

Sleep diaries, not to be confused with dream journals, help you keep track of your nightly sleep patterns. Dream journals only contain the details of your dreams.

Researchers and clinicians use sleep diaries for insomnia research and to help evaluate patient sleep concerns, explains Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN, science advisor for Aeroflow Sleep.

But you can track your sleep patterns on your own, too. You might decide to log your sleep details if you suspect you have a sleeping disorder or have trouble getting restful sleep on a regular basis.

Why does good sleep matter so much? Plenty of reasons.

The right amount of healthy sleep can:

  • help your body rest and recover
  • boost energy, concentration, and focus
  • improve immune health
  • make it easier to manage your emotions

Read on to learn how a sleep diary can help improve your snooze, plus a few tips on getting started with your own daily log.

So what does keeping a sleep diary actually entail?

Typical details you might keep track of include:

  • how long it takes you to fall asleep
  • whether you wake up during the night
  • the number of times you wake up during the night
  • how long these episodes of wakefulness last
  • the time you wake up in the morning
  • sleep quality rating

Alone, these snippets can’t tell you or a sleep specialist very much. “Combined, this information gives a meaningful evaluation of sleep efficiency,” says Weiss.

You can also include additional notes to help you get to the bottom of any persistent sleep issues, such as:

“A lot of scientific evidence suggests that sleep diaries are an excellent self-monitoring tool and can improve sleep quality,” Weiss explains. She goes on to add that working with a sleep specialist is key, since they can analyze the data and make recommendations to help improve your overall sleep quality.

Not everyone necessarily needs to keep a sleep diary. Still, it can be a helpful tool if you’re struggling to get restorative sleep. Your doctor or other healthcare provider might even ask you to log sleep details if they suspect poor sleep plays a part in any health concerns you experience.

Of course, you can use a sleep diary to track your sleep even if you don’t have a sleep disorder.

Logging sleep-related habits can help you pinpoint potential issues with sleep hygiene. A sleep diary can help you notice you don’t feel rested on nights where you sit in bed and play games on your smartphone, for example.

Weiss also notes that parents or caretakers of babies and small children may find it helpful to keep a sleep diary when trying to establish a sleep routine and ensure their children get enough sleep. Sleep diaries for young children will usually include additional information about naps.

To get started with your sleep diary, Weiss recommends marking what time you went to bed in the evening and responding to other questions in the morning when you wake up. “It’s essential to be consistent and answer the questions daily, for at least 1 to 2 weeks, if you seek advice from a sleep doctor,” she says.

As far as your entries go, the format can be pretty simple.

A sample sleep diary entry

  • Time I got into bed: 10 p.m.
  • Time I tried to fall asleep: 10:45 p.m.
  • Time to fall asleep: around 30 minutes
  • Any waking during the night? Yes
  • If yes, how many times: twice (to go to the bathroom)
  • How long? a few minutes
  • Wakeup time: 7 a.m.
  • Time I actually got out of bed: 7:15 a.m.
  • Sleep quality on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 meaning I felt fully rested and refreshed on waking): 6 — felt groggy when waking up
  • Any daytime naps? 1 hour, from around 3 to 4 p.m.
  • Notes: watched Netflix in bed, worked late
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A sleep diary is the gold standard for recognizing and treating sleep disorders like insomnia, but wearable devices with built-in accelerometers can also help you track sleep patterns, Weiss explains.

One drawback of keeping a sleep diary is that it can get a little time-consuming, especially if you keep the diary for months at a time. Wearables collect data passively, so you don’t have to put any effort into logging your data.

Still, most wearables don’t do much in the way of analysis. Few provide actionable advice based on collected data. They also can’t record your personal perceptions related to sleep, which is one of the main goals of a sleep diary.

In short, while sleep data from fitness tracking devices can have value, your own perceptions of your sleep may yield more insight into your sleep concerns.

Difficulty sleeping doesn’t necessarily mean you have a sleep disorder. Plenty of things can negatively impact sleep quality, in fact.

A sleep diary can draw your attention to habits getting in the way of restful sleep, including:

An inconsistent sleep schedule can also make it hard to get regular restorative sleep, as can light or noise pollution in your bedroom.

Sometimes, though, isolating the cause of your sleep troubles on your own can prove challenging.

According to Weiss, having a sleep specialist analyze your sleep diary is the best way to glean valuable information from the data.

A few key signs it may be time to consider reaching out to a professional:

  • You need more than 30 minutes to fall asleep.
  • You wake up multiple times during the night.
  • You spend long periods of the night lying awake.
  • You wake up too early and having trouble falling back asleep.
  • You wake up and don’t feel rested.

Keeping a sleep diary isn’t a necessary component of getting a night of quality rest. That said, logging sleep details can make it easier for a sleep specialist to identify and treat insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Tracking your sleep habits can also help you recognize when it’s time to consider refreshing your bedtime routine for a better night’s sleep.

Steph Coelho is a freelance writer with chronic migraine who has a particular interest in health and wellness. When she’s not click-clacking away on her keyboard, she’s probably nose-deep in a good book.