How to Stop Waking Up in the Middle of the Night, Once and for All

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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 light (natural or artificial) 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. And when you can't fall asleep, the worst thing to think about is the fact you're having a hard time falling asleep.

"Cognitive impairment including poor memory, and even poor learning, is associated with poor sleep," explains Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. "There is a correlation between sleeplessness and increase in stress, by increasing the stress hormone, Cortisol, directly, Cortisol creates chronic inflammation and is deleterious to your health. Lack of adequate sleep makes you moody and prone to irritation."

We wanted to find a natural approach to making sure we don’t get woken up throughout the night, so we turned to sleep expert, Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., to get her best tips for sleeping soundly all the way to the (annoying) sound of our alarm.

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Sanam Hafeez is an NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. She is also a member of Byrdie's Beauty & Wellness Review Board.
  • Wendy M. Troxel is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist out of the RAND Corporation in Pittsburgh, PA. Most widely known for her TED Talk around sleep and adolescence, Troxel has been working to educate on the importance of sleep and how to cultivate it.
how to sleep better
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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.

So 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.”

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.

Make sure that whatever activity you choose to do, you're doing it in dim lighting. If the room is too bright, it can disrupt your internal clock and keep you up longer.

Unplug Before Bed

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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.

Exercise to Manage Stress

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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.”

Skip the Nightcap

Smiling Young Woman Holding glass in restaurant
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We're sorry to report this, and we hate it as much as you do, but you shouldn't be taking the wine-before-bed route either. You can scratch whiskey off too. “Having a ‘nightcap’ might help you to fall asleep, but as your body metabolizes the alcohol, it can disrupt sleep,” Troxel explains.

Avoid Coffee After Mid-Day

Close-Up of a Mug of Coffee
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Speaking of beverages, it's something almost everyone knows, but few people internalize: coffee in the late afternoon or evening will keep you up at night. If not by preventing you from falling asleep, it will keep you up by making you toss and turn. Simply put, it throws off your body's clock, and when your brain doesn't feel like it's time for you to be asleep, it's hard to keep yourself that way.

Wake Up at the Same Time Daily

Young boy sleeping next to comically large alarm clock
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Troxel also strongly advises that you "keep a consistent wake-up time, even if you’ve slept poorly the night before." 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.

Don't Hit Snooze

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She also advises that you "Treat wake-up like ripping off a band-aid." According to Troxel, "Hitting snooze or lounging around is just delaying the inevitable. The sooner your feet hit the floor and you start moving the sooner you’ll be able to shake the cobwebs off and approach your day."

A great way to get out of "sleep mode" (and regulate your circadian rhythm in the process) is to develop a habit you will get out of bed for: "Try to see something, do something, or listen to something that gives you joy in the morning," Troxel suggests. "For instance, if you live somewhere with beautiful scenery, take a moment and just observe or listen to some music that makes you happy. You could even watch a quick youtube video of puppies frolicking. The key is to do something that doesn’t take much time, but puts a smile on your face."

Make Your Bed

Unmade bed with white sheets
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It's easy and tempting to leave your bed unmade, especially because you're just going to get back in it later. But if you want to help yourself sleep, it's time to get into the habit of actually making your bed. "The act of making your bed not only puts closure to the night before (whether your sleep was good, bad or indifferent), but it also sets you up for the upcoming night with a fresh and tidy start."

Practice Gratitude

Woman looking out of her hotel room window to a gorgeous view
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Troxel has another, more mindfulness-based trick up her sleeve, too: "Be grateful. Daily gratitude practice can make you happier and sleep better."

Similarly, 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.

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