Wake Up in the Middle of the Night? Here’s Your Survival Plan

Source: @cozyearth
Source: @cozyearth

So you’ve finally mastered the art of falling asleep, but orchestrating a good night’s sleep without any interruptions is another story. Whether it’s nature calling, a nightmare you can’t shake, or you’re having a Goldie Locks moment and your sleep environment is too hot or too cold, it’s 3 a.m. and you find yourself wide awake and googling “how to fall back asleep.” Sound familiar? You’re in good company. A study in Sleep Medicine estimates that about a third of American adults wake up in the night at least three times per week, and over 40 percent of those restless sleepers reported having trouble falling back asleep. So what’s the deal? I asked Dr. Jade Wu, Ph.D., a behavioral sleep psychologist and Hatch‘s medical advisor, to walk us through the common reasons for overnight wakings and what to do when you wake up in the middle of the night.

Behavioral Sleep Psychologist, Dr. Jade Wu

Dr. Jade Wu, PhD, DBSM is a board-certified behavioral sleep specialist specializing in adult insomnia and sleep problems during pregnancy and the postnatal period. In the clinic, she uses evidence-based methods and a collaborative approach to help people restore sleep health.

Why do we wake up in the middle of the night?

We’ve been told getting a solid, straight eight hours of sleep is the gold standard. And while your body is wired to need sleep, it’s also wired to wake up throughout the night, as Dr. Wu pointed out. “Most healthy adults between ages 30 and 65 wake up 10 to 15 times every night, and you probably don’t even notice or remember most of those, because they’re super brief, and you’re half asleep,” she explained.
Dr. Wu cited that these brief wake-ups usually happen when you’re transitioning between different stages of sleep (FYI, there are four stages), and they’re your brain’s way of scanning the environment to make sure you’re safe. If your brain determines there’s nothing needing attention, then you typically fall back asleep without any negative impact on the sleep cycle or your quality of rest.

Another culprit for those intermittent nightly arousals? “Before the advent of artificial light, night was really long,” Dr. Wu expressed. “There wasn’t much people could do after sunset, but they also didn’t need 12 hours of sleep, so they’d wake up for a few hours in the middle to do chores or just hang out. Now our lifestyles are different, so we expect and want to sleep in one solid chunk, but our biology is still stuck in that state of wanting to wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. and stay awake for a while.” 

What should you do if you wake up in the middle of the night?

From innate biological behaviors to run-of-the-mill annoyances—work deadlines, forgetting to pay a bill, or dwelling on a tiff between you and your S.O.—stirring you awake after a few hours of sleep, Dr. Wu stressed the importance of giving it your all to get back to your Zzzs. Ahead, her best hacks for how to fall back asleep.

Avoid as much light as possible

As second nature as it may be to grab your Apple companion or click on the TV when you’re tossing and turning, Dr. Wu discouraged doing anything that could trick your body into thinking it’s daytime (AKA exposure to blue light), or else you could incite a cycle of sleeplessness. In other words, don’t go down the social media rabbit hole or start answering emails and expose yourself to sleep-dampening light that signals to your body it’s time to wake up. Even if you need to get up, try to reduce exposure to light (if you need to go to the bathroom, for example, opt for amber night lights rather than turning on the overhead light). “If you have to go to the bathroom or grab a sip of water, do it quickly, and try to maintain a sleepy environment,” Dr. Wu advised. “Keeping light minimal is one way to do that since light exposure tells your body it’s time to wake up. A nightlight or dim light is better than turning on all the lights.”

Stop staring at the clock

It may be tempting to keep checking the time, but resist the urge to watch the clock tick at all costs. “Thinking about what time it is and counting the hours until you have to wake up will only trigger anxiety, which makes it harder to fall asleep,” Dr. Wu affirmed. Have an affirmation to repeat when you find yourself stressing about how late it is, such as “I am completely relaxed,” or “All is well.”

Try breathwork

Taking deep breaths is the closest thing to a stress cure because it signals your parasympathetic nervous system (AKA your rest-and-digest system) to chill out. “Focus on relaxing your mind and body, even just taking a few slow, deep breaths while relaxing all your muscles,” Dr. Wu suggested. “If you want to, you can even count some sheep. Eventually, you should drift off into sleep—and if you wake up a few more times, chances are, you won’t even remember them.”

Use a sleep meditation

Meditation is a useful tool as part of your daily routine, but it can also be key for falling back asleep. By targeting both anxious, racing thoughts and physical stress symptoms, sleep meditation can stimulate overall relaxation that sets your body up for sleep. But you don’t have to go at it alone. Try cueing a sleep-based guided meditation like a Headspace SOS session, to quiet any mental chatter that wakes you up.

Set a caffeine and alcohol curfew

They say you are what you eat, but you sleep as you eat too. “Alcohol can disrupt your sleep, especially that critical REM phase where emotional regulation happens,” said Morgan Adams, added holistic sleep coach for women. “Eating food too close to bedtime can signal wakefulness in the brain, which can interfere with your ability to fall asleep.” The general rule of thumb is to curb your intake of food and alcohol three to four hours before bed and pass on caffeine after lunch. If your goal is to be in bed by 10 p.m., try having dinner ready no later than 6:30 p.m. to ensure you have enough time between your meal and bedtime. 

Change up your environment

If it’s been about 20 minutes and you’re not making any progress falling back asleep, many sleep experts recommend getting out of bed and going to a different room. A change of scenery and doing something relaxing (see: breathwork or meditating) to provide a distraction may make it easier to fall back asleep when you go back to bed. “It’s important not to stay in bed, even if you’re reading,” cautioned Johns Hopkins sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., C.B.S.M. “Doing this will lead your brain and body to associate your bed with wakefulness instead of with sleep. It can be difficult to leave 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.” Even if it doesn’t help you get back to sleep that night, it’s important to associate the bed with only sleep to wire your brain longterm that being in bed means sleeping.