Breathing Exercises for Sleep
Benefits | 4-7-8 Breathing | Count Your Breaths | Resonance Breathing | Music Guided Breathing | Q&A
Medically reviewed by Dr Sonia Madrid Cuevas Msc PhD. Written by: Ben Gillett MSc. Updated: 7 October 2021
When we sleep well we feel calmer and happier, we can concentrate better and our immune system is stronger. So good sleep is at the heart of being healthy and feeling good.
We tend to sleep better when we are relaxed. Breathing exercises are one of the most effective ways to get our bodies and minds into a relaxed state. These breathing techniques are easy to learn and scientific research has shown that they help people to sleep better.  So if you have sleeping problems these techniques can play an important role in improving your sleep.
4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
This is a method of breathing to a specific pattern designed to calm the body.
Breath in for 4 seconds
Hold your breath for 7 seconds
Breath out for 8 seconds
As we breathe in we activate the body and as we breathe out we calm the body, so this pattern has a longer exhale than inhale to help calm our body and reduce our heart rate.
Abdominal breathing works by engaging the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle that draws air deep into the lungs. Sometimes we breathe shallow breaths, with the air sitting in the chest. Through abdominal breathing more oxygen fills the lungs and enters the bloodstream. This increases the oxygen in our blood, calms down the body and lowers blood pressure.
Place one hand just below your rib cage.
Inhale: slowly breathe in through your nose so that your stomach expands out against your hand. Let your breath flow as deeply into your stomach as is comfortable without forcing it.
Exhale: slowly breathe out through pursed lips, tightening your stomach muscles and letting your stomach fall.
You can read more about diaphragmatic breathing here.
Count Your Breaths
Mindfulness is a kind of meditation in which you focus on what you are sensing and feeling in the moment. This can be challenging to do, and one way to make this a little easier is to count your breaths to provide something extra to focus on. When counting breaths, you can just count them in your mind - you don’t need to speak out loud.
When it comes to better sleep, counting the breath helps the mind to stay present. Presence allows the mind to calm down and stop overthinking. As this happens the body calms down putting you into a more relaxed state ready for bed.
One of the simplest ways to do this is:
Inhale - gently count in your mind “one”
Inhale - “two”
Keep going up to 10 and then start back at one
Or if you need a little more to focus on you can try the following:
Inhale - “Breathing in one”
Exhale - “Breathing out one”
Inhale - “Breathing in two”
Exhale - “Breathing out two”
Keep going up to 10 and then start back at one
Breathing imagery combines breathwork with visualization. Instead of focusing so much on the rhythm of the breath, the focus is on visualising the breath.
Sit or lie down and begin to place your attention on the breath
Notice the inhales and exhale - where one exhale ends and the next inhale begins
Picture a visual aspect of your breathing - for example, you could imagine wonderfully warming white light entering your body on the inhale, while multi-coloured particles you no longer need leave your body on the exhale
You can accompany the breathing with a short phrase such as “I breathe in calm, I breathe out tension”
Resonance breathing is a particular kind of paced breathing in which you breathe slowly at around six breaths per minute. Scientific research has shown this technique to have a regulating effect on your heart and nervous system which can be measured by a positive change in your heart rate variability.
You can practice this breathing technique using a watch, breathing in and out every ten seconds. However, there is an easier and more enjoyable way - using music to guide your inhale and exhale.
Music Guided Breathing
Harmonic Breathing comprises music that guides you to breathe at six breaths per minute - the optimal rate for relaxation, by simply inhaling with the rising notes and exhaling with the falling notes.
This is one of the easiest ways to practice breathing exercises for anxiety. With Harmonic Breathing you can combine resonance breathing, abdominal breathing, and mindful breathing all at the same time to maximize your relaxation.
When Should You Do Breathing Exercises for Sleep?
Research shows that doing 15 minutes of breathing exercises prior to sleep decreases the time needed to get to sleep and improves sleep quality. We suggest doing breathing exercises when you get into bed to help your body get into a relaxed state. The advantage of doing the exercises as soon as you get into bed is that you are then less likely to forget to do so. You can either continue to do them until you fall asleep or stop once you’ve done 15 minutes - find out what works for you.
What Apart from Breathing Exercises Can Help with Sleep?
There are some things you can do to help you sleep alongside your breathing practice. We’ve noted some actions you can take below.
Sleep at regular times. Go to sleep at the same time every day. This will help programme your internal body clock for sleep. Also, irrespective of how you slept, try to get up at the same time every day.
Wind down before bed. Write down a ‘to do’ list of anything you need to do the next day to get it out of your mind and on to paper. Take a warm shower or bath or do some light yoga or stretches. Read some pages of a relaxing book or listen to music.
Make your bedroom about sleep. Remove as much as possible that isn’t associated with sleep. Remove technology from your room. With many of us working from home now it has become more popular to put a desk in the bedroom - it’s best to locate the desk elsewhere if possible.
Dim the light in your house and bedroom about an hour before bed. This will help with melatonin production which is the chemical that indicates to the body it is ready for sleep.
If you wake up in the middle of the night don’t lie in bed for long periods of time because this can lead to anxious thoughts and worry about not being able to sleep. Get up after 30 minutes and make yourself a cup of decaffeinated tea and read a book or listen to relaxing music and return to bed when you feel sleepy.
How Do Breathing Exercises Help the Body Get Ready for Sleep?
Breathing exercises train the body to switch back to the rest and digest system. As we slow the breath down this is an indicator to the body that it should switch into rest mode. As the breath slows, the body begins to relax, it stops producing cortisol and slows down the heart rate.
As these physical reactions take place the mind begins to calm down since the mind and body are linked together. An overactive body leads to an overactive mind and the opposite is true. If we want to calm the mind before sleep then one way we can do that is to calm the body.
How Often Should You Do Breathing Exercises for Sleep?
Ideally, these exercises should be practiced daily. It might take some time to get to the point where this is possible since introducing new habits can be challenging. Some practice is better than none so start where you feel comfortable.
One really great way to ensure you get your practice done is to schedule it into your calendar or set a reminder on your phone. Block off the time for your practice in your schedule so that you know exactly when it is going to happen.
Can Meditation Music Help You Sleep?
Listening to meditation music before or while you fall asleep can help you get to sleep faster and have better sleep quality. Think of meditation music as the adult version of a lullaby. For generations, we've sung babies to sleep because the calm tones, rhythms, and relaxing music worked to get them to sleep. And it doesn't stop working working when you become and adult. Nature sounds, soundscapes, ambient music have helped adults fall asleep over the years. These sounds give signals to our nervous system that it's time to calm down, that we are safe, and now it's time to sleep.
How Do I Get Started With Breathing Exercises for Sleep?
The easiest way to get started is to watch the introduction video featured on the Harmonic Breathing Homepage. Try Harmonic Breathing in which you can combine diaphragmatic breathing, resonance breathing and mindful breathing with music, binaural beats and nature sounds all at once. Try it - it’s completely free and easy to do.