Up in the Middle of the Night? How to Get Back to Sleep
Waking up in the middle of the night is normal. Most of us experience mini-awakenings without even noticing them—up to 20 times per hour. When it comes to observable wake-ups, most people have about two or three per night. But up to one in five Americans have difficulty getting back to sleep—a frustrating, sleep-robbing problem that experts call “sleep maintenance insomnia.”
While we tend to stare at the clock, toss and turn for hours, or flip on the light and watch TV when sleep eludes us, there are much better ways to cope and help ourselves get back to sleep, says Johns Hopkins sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., C.B.S.M. Instead, try these six sleeping tips. They can help you get back to sleep tonight and pave the way for sound sleep tomorrow night and beyond.
Don’t watch the clock.
Turn your alarm clock to face the wall and resist the temptation to check the time on your smartphone. Counting the minutes of missed sleep since waking up in the middle of the night increases stress and anxiety, which could delay your return to slumber. In addition, exposure to blue and green light from your clock, phone, tablet or computer can make you feel more alert.
Visit the bathroom to empty your bladder if it might be full. Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark and that your bedding is just right so that you don’t feel too warm or chilly. (For more ways to make your bedroom sleep-friendly, take this tour.)
Handle health needs.
If you have a chronic pain condition or even a short-term health issue that causes discomfort, follow your doctor’s advice for easing pain at night, for example.
Try progressive muscle relaxation. Work your way through the different muscle groups in your body (e.g. arms, legs, torso, face) tensing the muscles in each group at about three-quarters strength for approximately five seconds before releasing the tension all at once. Skip any muscles that hurt and try to isolate the muscles as you contract them instead of, for example, tensing your chest muscles when you’re focusing on your arms. Take slow, deep breaths in between muscle groups.
Get up and go.
If you’re just not dozing off, get up after about 20 minutes have gone by. (It’s fine to just guesstimate how much time has passed.) “Sit in a comfortable chair in another room,” Buenaver suggests. “Read a book, with just enough lights on so that you can see the print comfortably. If your mind is racing (perhaps you’re going over a work presentation you’ll give in the morning or trying to solve a problem in your life), distract yourself by listening to quiet music or a recorded book for a few minutes. Don’t do anything stressful like working or paying bills.”
It’s important not to stay in bed, even if you’re reading, Buenaver says. “Doing this will lead your brain and body to associate your bed with wakefulness instead of with sleep. It can be difficult leaving a warm, comfortable bed after waking up in the middle of the night. But think of this step as an investment in better sleep—if not tonight then tomorrow night and in the future.” Go back to bed when you feel drowsy.
Follow your normal schedule tomorrow.
“Don’t sleep in, don’t nap, and don’t go to bed early the next night,” Buenaver says. “Get up at your usual time and go to bed at your usual bedtime. You may feel a bit more tired than usual during the day, but by increasing your body’s appetite for sleep you’re ensuring a better night—and you’ll put yourself on track for sound sleep after that.”
What the Experts Do
Sleeping Tips for Perimenopause
Waking up in the middle of the night is a common complaint during perimenopause. One reason: hot flashes and night sweats. If you go to bed feeling comfortable only to wake up drenched in sweat due to changing hormones in midlife, try arranging your bed and bedroom for quick and easy temperature adjustments. “Have a fan nearby and several layers of blankets on the bed instead of one big comforter so you can take some off when you feel warm,” says Johns Hopkins sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., C.B.S.M.