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Developing Healthy Sleeping Habits While Deployed

Soldier in cockpit

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Beth Holliker/Released

Sleep can be just as important to your mission as having enough food, water and ammunition.1,2 Although it may not always be possible to get a full night’s sleep while you’re deployed, developing healthy sleep patterns and habits can help build your resilience, improve your ability to deal with necessary periods of sleeplessness and prepare you to perform your best during a mission. Getting enough quality sleep is especially important for leaders making decisions critical to mission success. This article shares common myths about sleep and six tips to improve your sleep habits while you settle into your new routine away from home.

Why is Sleep Important?

Sleep is a biological need – like air, food, or water – and is critical for sustaining the mental abilities needed for success on the battlefield. The average adult requires seven to eight hours of good quality sleep every 24-hour period to sustain operational readiness. Sleep is also incredibly restorative. It helps the body repair itself, it builds resilience by boosting the immune system and it gives people a foundation to help them tackle their tasks each day. Getting enough regular sleep will also improve learning, memory and performance.

When you don’t get enough sleep, it can be harder to perform your best on the battlefield. For example, lack of sleep may result in:1,2,3,4

  • Slower reaction times
  • Poor concentration
  • Weakened immune system
  • Negative moods and lack of motivation
  • Impaired memory and judgment

Six Tips To Improve Sleep Habits

  1. Plan relaxing activities before bed
    • Try doing something relaxing before bed like reading, listening to calming music or journaling. Hold off on stimulants like caffeine or nicotine at least three to five hours before going to sleep, and avoid strenuous exercise and heavy meals before bed.
  2. Make your environment “sleep ready”
    • It may be impossible to keep your room dark, cool and quiet while deployed, but you can use some other techniques to make your environment easier to sleep in. For example, a fan can keep you cool and also provide ambient noise. Keeping a sleep mask or ear plugs close to your bed can help drown out light or noise when minor disruptions occur.
  3. Take naps to help recover from sleep loss
    • Taking naps can help you reduce fatigue, increase alertness and improve mood and performance. If you can fit them into your schedule, try to take naps between 10 and 30 minutes in length; longer naps increase your chances of feeling groggy after waking up. Also, be sure to leave yourself ample time to wake up before engaging in activities, especially those requiring a high level of alertness.5
  4. Help yourself get back to sleep faster if you wake up
    • If you wake up in the middle of the night, try to focus on relaxing to get back to bed. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something relaxing like listening to calming music or reading in low light. And try not to watch the clock, which can cause stress and actually make it harder to fall asleep.6
  5. Talk to your line leader about sleep recovery
    • Most service members can usually recover completely from two or three days of sleep loss if they are allowed a 12-hour sleep recovery period.7 Talk to your line leader about possible sleep recovery plans after periods of continuous operations to help catch up on heavy sleep loss.
  6. Consult a health care provider if you experience consistent sleep issues
    • Reaching out is a sign of strength. Discuss your sleep concerns with a health care provider before beginning any over-the-counter medications, supplements or other sleep aids. Speak with a trained health resource consultant at the DCoE Outreach Center by logging on to the Real Warriors Live Chat or calling 1-866-966-1020.

Four Common Myths About Sleep8

  • Myth: “It’s possible to go for long periods of time without sleep, and still perform well.”
    • Fact: Although many individuals may function well on little sleep for short periods of time, limited sleep over long periods of time can impair battlefield performance and diminish speed, alertness, ability to multitask, decision-making skills, coordination and memory.3
  • Myth: “Some people need less sleep than others to function well.”
    • Fact: The average adult needs approximately seven to eight hours of sleep to function well. Research shows that even young, healthy service members will experience 25 percent loss in mental performance for each 24-hour period they go without sleep.3
  • Myth: “It’s better to stay awake for the rest of the day than take a short nap.”
    • Fact: Staying awake for the whole night can be a common occurrence during deployments. When this happens, try to recover by taking periodic 20-minute naps, which can improve mood and alertness and help your body get an important dose of rest.
  • Myth: “Physical exercise before bedtime will help you sleep better.”
    • Fact: Actually, physical exercise is one of the best ways to combat sleepiness and get blood flowing to your brain to keep you alert. Getting regular exercise during the day will force you to exert energy and can prepare you for a good night’s sleep, but working out before bed is a surefire way to keep you up.

Getting enough sleep can help you maintain a healthy outlook on life, boost your immune system and enable you to deal with the typical stressors of a deployment.9 Take your sleep seriously and if you are experiencing difficulty sleeping, keep in mind that every service member and veteran can feel comfortable reaching out to their units and chain of command for support.

Additional Resources


1"Sleep, A Signal of Positive Emotion," Army Medicine. Last accessed March 14, 2014
2"Fact Sheet: Help Me Sleep," Deployment Health Clinical Center. Last accessed Jan. 29, 2014
3"Combat Stress," [PDF 266KB], United States Marine Corps. Last accessed Jan. 29, 2014
4"Importance of Sleep: Six reasons not to scrimp on sleep," Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. Last accessed Jan. 29, 2014
5"Napping: do's and don'ts for healthy adults," Mayo Clinic. Last accessed Jan. 29, 2014
6"Insomnia: How do I stay asleep?," Mayo Clinic. Last accessed Jan. 29, 2014
7"Sleep Deprivation," United States Army Training Support Center. Last accessed Jan. 29, 2014
8"How much sleep does a Warfighter need?," Human Performance Resource Center. Last accessed Jan. 29, 2014
9"A Handbook for Family & Friends of Service Members: Before, During and After Deployment," This Emotional Life, PBS. Published November 2010.

Last Reviewed: 01/29/14
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