Can't sleep? Don't panic!

When we're babies, we take sleeping for granted. Although interrupted nights are standard practice for the first few months, most little ones are sleeping through the night - except when they're poorly - within a year or so. By the time we reach adulthood we've usually settled into a sleeping pattern.

When we're babies, we take sleeping for granted. Although interrupted nights are standard practice for the first few months, most little ones are sleeping through the night - except when they're poorly - within a year or so. Of course, their idea of a lie-in is bouncing out of bed at 5am, demanding to be entertained. Once teenage hormones kick in, they consider dragging them out of their pits any time before midday a major imposition, but by the time they reach adulthood they've usually settled into a pattern.

The world can definitely be divided into morning people and night-time people - larks and owls. My family are well aware that I am not a morning person! My son has inherited this tendency, and given half a chance will be up until the small hours playing computer games with his friends, but finds the time his school day starts highly uncivilised. My daughter, on the other hand, has often done five hours of exam revision by lunchtime during the holidays, but always takes herself off to bed sooner than I have to send her.

But when sleep is disrupted, there are more issues at play than your natural sleep type. Insomnia - any kind of poor sleep that has an effect on your quality of life - affects about one in five people. And teasing out what bit of your sleep is a problem could be the first step to solving the problem. For instance, depression affects different people's sleep patterns in different ways, but the 'classic' pattern is to get to sleep without problem but wake early. If you have obstructive sleep apnoea, you may not be aware that you're having any problem sleeping, but still feel exhausted when you wake.Stress may stop you getting to sleep in the first place; menopausal symptoms mean you wake either boiling hot (and pull the covers off) or freezing cold (and pull them back on).

Sleeping tablets are highly addictive, even in those which carry a lower risk of physical dependence. It takes very little time for you to become subconsciously reliant on sleeping tablets if you've been taking them regularly, because your brain is tricked into believing it needs them and releases adrenaline in a panic if you lie down without one. Recent studies have also suggested they can have serious side effects, so your doctor will try hard to avoid prescribing them.

Simple 'sleep hygiene' measures are often enough to help you through a phase of insomnia. Even if you're sleeping well, these tips are good habits to get into:

Make your bedroom a haven of rest - it should be obvious, but it's amazing how many people don't associate their bed with sleep. Watching TV, working or eating in bed stop your subconscious from associating your bed with sleep. Buy curtains that really block all light; get rid of ticking clocks or lights from digital clocks or electronic devices; invest in earplugs if you live in a noisy area; and consider changing your mattress.

Don't - drink caffeine within six hours of bedtime; exercise late in the evening (although regular exercise earlier in the day can help sleep enormously); eat a big meal too late at night

Alcohol - lots of people imagine that drinking alcohol helps them sleep. In the short term, it may help you get to sleep - alcohol depresses the central nervous system - but it greatly reduces the quality of your sleep, with less deep sleep and more disruption to your natural sleep pattern. This alone would mean that a given period asleep was less restful. But alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning that you're more likely to wake early to go to the bathroom, then can't get back to sleep. What's more, if you drink regularly, you may find it difficult to sleep without alcohol, leading to a vicious cycle of more alcohol and more disturbed sleep

Late nights and lie-ins - If you've had a hard week or are tired, it's natural to try to catch up on sleep at the weekend. But both lie-ins and irregular bedtimes can disrupt your body's natural circadian rhythm of wakefulness and sleepiness, and you may be doing more harm than good. A regular bedtime, setting the alarm clock for the same time at the weekends and avoiding catnaps can go a long way to overcoming insomnia.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.