How to Stop Waking Up in the Middle of the Night, Once and for All
There’s almost nothing worse than those nights you just… keep… waking… up. For some, falling asleep is only half the battle—it’s staying asleep that hovers overhead like a dragon to slay. We count sheep, we block out any and all artificial light shining at us—maybe even have a glass of warm milk—but when we just can’t get any shut-eye and have an 8:30 a.m. wake-up call looming, desperation starts to kick in.
Because sleeping pills aren’t the answer and we’d rather find a more holistic and natural approach to making sure we don’t get woken up throughout the night, we turned to a sleep expert Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., to get her best tips for sleeping soundly all the way to the (annoying) sound of our alarm. Keep scrolling to read her top five strategies for snoozing through the night sans interruptions!
So here’s the gist of it: If you are or have been prone to waking up in the middle of the night, for whatever reason, and you remain in bed awake and angry—or worse, lie there on your phone—your brain gets confusing signals, which can contribute to more nights of interrupted sleep. “Our brains learn by association, and to sleep well, you want your brain to have a strong learned association between the bed and sleep,” says Troxel.
That means from here on out, if you do wake up in the middle of the night and can’t initially fall right back asleep, don’t stay there. Troxel says to get out of bed. “Go do something like reading a book or magazine,” she suggests. “The key is to distract yourself from the fact that you are not sleeping (so you don’t practice worrying in bed), and once your brain is distracted by some other activity, you might actually get sleepy again. At that point, you can return to bed.” Whatever activity you choose, Troxel says to make sure it’s relaxing and that you do it in “low-light conditions.”
We’re majorly guilty of scrolling through Instagram with our face flat on the pillow until we more or less fall asleep hearting photos, but this is a serious no-no when it comes to sleeping through the night. Troxel advises unplugging at least one hour before bedtime—which means your eyes aren’t exposed to screens for a minimum of an hour before it’s time to hit the sack—and keeping technology (all of it) out of the bedroom. “Technology such as iPhones, tablets, and televisions not only provide very stimulating content, which can keep you awake at night, but they also can directly interfere with a good night of sleep by emitting light, which can interfere with sleep,” Troxel says.
We suggest keeping your phone on a charger in a different room altogether and going to the old-school alarm clock route to avoid disruptive light.
Believe it or not, waking up at the same time every day will actually help you to stop waking up in the middle of the night. “The time you wake up is the single most important factor that sets your brain’s internal biological clock, so the brain knows when to be alert and awake (during the day) and when it should be asleep (at night),” explains Troxel.
Without setting these signals and sticking to them, you don’t train your brain well to delineate between being asleep at night and alert during the day. And when your internal biological clock is haywire, you might find yourself restless and mentally alert at night.
It may sound easier said than done, but getting a handle on stress is crucial when it comes to not waking up in the middle-of-the-night. “Stress, worry, and negative emotions all can contribute to middle of the night awakenings,” says Troxel. “It is particularly difficult to unwind and ‘unplug’ from our day-to-day lives because we live in an increasingly 24/7 world, so thoughts, worries, and to-do lists can creep into the night and disrupt our sleep,” she says. “But there are lots of strategies that are effective and healthy for managing stress and worry, such as yoga, meditation, or physical activity in general. Just choose what works for you, and do it on a regular basis so it becomes a part of your daily routine.”
Any stress-management strategy is better than the wine-before-bed route. “Having a ‘nightcap’ might help you to fall asleep, but as your body metabolizes the alcohol, it can disrupt sleep,” Troxel explains.
In addition to getting out of bed if and when you do wake up, Troxel’s golden rule is to keep the bed for sleep and sex alone. “That means avoid engaging in other activities such as working, checking emails or social media, even eating in bed,” she says.
Because our brain learns by association, engaging in those other activities sends the wrong signal, which can lead to disrupted sleep. Finally, if you find yourself absolutely unable to fall back asleep after getting out of bed, Troxel says that deep breathing (such as this trick we swear by), relaxation, or meditation exercises can be helpful.
Are you a rock-solid sleeper, or do you have trouble sleeping through the night? Will you try implementing these changes in your life? Tell us below!
This post was originally published on March 10, 2015, and has been updated.