Keeping a Sleep Diary

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 12, 2021
4 min read

You've had trouble sleeping, but you're not sure what's going on. Do you have insomnia? Do you spend too much time on your phone before bed? Or is one of the medications you take keeping you awake?

Your primary care doctor or a sleep specialist can diagnose the problem. But first, they need to know more about your sleep patterns and habits. That's where a sleep diary can help.

A sleep diary or sleep journal is an easy tool to help your doctor learn how much and how well you sleep. Keeping a diary for 1 to 2 weeks can reveal the patterns and factors that stop you from getting a good night's rest.

Once you are diagnosed with a sleep problem, a sleep diary can help your doctor see whether your treatment is working. A sleep log is basically the same thing, but it includes more details about your sleep.

You don't have to write in an actual diary or journal. A piece of paper is fine. Your doctor might give you a sheet to fill out, or suggest you use a template like one the Sleep Foundation or the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) offers. If you prefer to go paperless, you can use a smartphone app to keep track of your sleep.

Every sleep diary is a little bit different. Ask your doctor what information to include, and for how long to track your sleep.

Put your sleep diary and a pencil or pen right next to your bed. Write the date at the top of the page. Before you go to bed and when you wake up, answer these questions:

  • What time did you get into bed?
  • How long did it take you to fall asleep?
  • How many times did you wake up?
  • How long did you stay awake each time?
  • What time did you wake up for good?
  • How well do you think you slept?
  • How many times did you nap during the day? How long was each nap?
  • How many alcoholic or caffeinated drinks did you have?
  • Which over-the-counter and prescription medications did you take?
  • Did you exercise? At what time?

It's important to complete your diary every day. If you can, fill it out within an hour after you wake up.

A sleep diary is a helpful tool for tracking your sleep, but it's not the only way to see how well you sleep. These are a few other methods.

Wearable sleep trackers. A sleep tracker is similar to the device you wear to track your steps and heart rate. Some sleep trackers record both your sleep and activity. 

Sleep trackers use sensors to measure things like your brain waves, heart rate, and movements. Depending on the type you buy, you can wear the sensor around your wrist or place it under your mattress. Sometimes your smartphone can act as a tracker when paired with an app. One problem is that the accuracy of wearable sleep trackers can vary, depending on the type you buy.

Actigraphy. Your doctor gives you this device, which you wear on your wrist. It tracks your movement during the night to detect when you're asleep and when you're awake. Actigraphy is useful for diagnosing insomnia, sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders. It measures your sleep instead of relying on your memory of how well you slept.

Sleep study. A sleep study, also called polysomnography, is a test your doctor can order to confirm whether you have a sleep disorder. You can have this test at a clinic or do it yourself at home. During a sleep study, you wear painless sensors on your head and body. These sensors record your brain activity, breathing, and other things while you sleep.

A sleep diary can reveal a few things you didn't expect about your sleep patterns. For example, you might learn that checking your texts right before bed is keeping you awake. The blue light that your cellphone and other electronic screens release stops your brain from releasing melatonin, the hormone that tells your body when it's time to fall asleep.

Or it might be that you work out too late in the day. Although exercise improves sleep, doing it too close to bedtime can make your brain too alert for sleep.

Your doctor or sleep specialist will go over your diary and test results with you. Once you have a better picture of your sleep habits, you and your doctor can talk about what areas need improvement. The solution might be to adjust your sleep habits, switch your medication, avoid eating or drinking certain things before bed, or treat any health conditions that are causing insomnia.