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Some think that ‘sleeping through’ is a term used for babies and toddlers. Turns out us adults wake up during the night too. And it can be incredibly hard to get back to sleep.
We’ve all been there: your body wakes up in the early hours (maybe you’ve had a bad dream, need to visit the loo, hear a loud sound - or you just wake up for no apparent reason). It’s no surprise you’re fed up of broken sleep every night - it’s not much fun looking at the clock at 3am and wondering whether you’ll ever manage to drift back off.
But there are proven methods that can help prevent you from waking up in the first place and help you stay sleepy if you do. Which leads us on to one of our all-time favourite memes…
Sleep maintenance insomnia explained
The inability to stay asleep throughout the night is so common that it has an official term: sleep maintenance insomnia - a subtype of insomnia. While people with this condition may have no trouble falling asleep initially, they find themselves waking up frequently during the night, struggling to get back to sleep.
- Waking up multiple times during the night
- Difficulty falling back asleep after waking
- Feeling fatigued and unrested in the morning
- Experiencing mood disturbances, irritability, and impaired cognitive function
Broken sleep every night. Why do I keep waking up in the night?
Keeping waking up in the night? Maybe you keep waking up every hour or two?
Before we look at how to avoid waking up in the night, and tactics to implement if you do, we need to understand the causes of nighttime awakenings.
Sleep Environment Factors:
Maintaining an ideal sleep environment is crucial. Background noises, lighting, and variations in temperature can all impact the quality of sleep. Even exposure to very dim light during the night can affect sleep architecture, altering the time spent in different sleep stages.
Alcohol, despite its initial knock-out effects, can reduce sleep quality, leading to increased disruptions. Stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, when consumed close to bedtime, can interfere with staying asleep. Certain medications, evening digital device usage, and lack of physical activity can also contribute to sleep disturbances.
Insomnia, a sleep disorder characterised by difficulty falling or staying asleep, often stems from underlying health problems. Conditions such as lung diseases or GERD can cause disturbances, emphasising the importance of addressing health issues for better sleep.
Research indicates that as we age, we spend less time in deep sleep and more time in light sleep, making us more prone to awakenings. Changes in circadian rhythm and the prevalence of health conditions like joint pain and bladder weakness further contribute to nighttime disruptions in older adults.
Hormonal changes, such as those during pregnancy and menopause, are associated with reduced sleep quality and increased awakenings. We wrote a blog about hormonal changes and sleep here.
What should I avoid doing if I wake in the night?
Fed up of broken sleep every night? There are certain activities that are best avoided when you wake up during the night, as they can hinder your ability to return to sleep:
Clock-Watching: Studies suggest that fixating on the time, AKA clock-watching, can make falling asleep more challenging, particularly for those with insomnia. Staring at the clock may lead to frustration and increased stress, making it even more difficult to get back to sleep.
Electronics and Lights: Despite the temptation to reach for your phone (after all, it can be incredibly boring being in your own head for long periods of time), it's advisable to resist. Exposure to light halts the production of melatonin, the sleep-promoting hormone, and the type of content you’re consuming on your social feeds is likely to get your heart rate going.
Staying in Bed: If you find yourself awake in the middle of the night and unable to drift back off, don’t just lie there for hours on end. Experts recommend leaving your bed after 15 to 30 minutes (or your best guess, seeing as you’re not clock-watching, remember?). This approach helps your brain associate the bed with sleep rather than wakefulness. Engaging in relaxing activities elsewhere, like meditation, reading or bedtime stretching, is recommended. Return to bed only when you feel your eyelids getting heavy again.
Tips for falling back to sleep when you wake in the night
If you do keep waking up in the night, here are seven tips to help you get back to sleep in no time.
1. Say Goodbye to Bright Lights:
Identify and eliminate any bright lights in your bedroom. LED lights from electronics and external light sources can hinder your ability to fall back asleep. Sleep masks, blackout blinds and simply placing rolled up towels under doors can really help with this. We recommend investing in a dimmable bedside lamp if you do need to put the light on in the middle of the night. Even if you leave your bed, resist turning on lights in other rooms, as bright light can interfere with melatonin production and stimulate wakefulness.
2. Put Pen to Paper:
So often, sleep disturbances arise from excessive worry. During the early hours, away from daytime distractions, our minds can easily become hyperactive and we often catastrophise situations. Many sleep specialists suggest keeping a pen and notepad on your bedside table or near your bed to document your concerns. Regardless of the nature of your worries, rather than endlessly dwelling on them, putting them in writing can really be beneficial. This process extracts the stresses from your mind, allowing you to release it and clear your thoughts. Just make sure that you keep a dimmed lighting environment as mentioned above (or use a reading light) when scribbling your notes, as bright light can disrupt your circadian rhythm.
3. Learn Some Relaxation Techniques:
There are various middle-of-the-night relaxation techniques to choose from (we wrote a blog about several techniques here), but we always recommend progressive muscle relaxation, a meditation-based approach. Starting from your toes and progressing to your forehead, tense each muscle tightly for five seconds and then gradually release. Focus on one leg and one arm at a time, paying special attention to areas prone to tension, such as your jaw and neck.
You could also try a 4-7-8 breathing exercise, often dubbed a "natural tranquilliser" for the nervous system, aiding in a gentle return to sleep. The objective is to slow down your breathing, subsequently reducing your heart rate and inducing relaxation in both the body and mind. To begin, position the tip of your tongue against the tissue ridge behind your upper front teeth, and follow these steps:
- Exhale completely through your mouth, creating a whoosh sound
- Keep your mouth closed, inhale through your nose for a count of 4
- Hold your breath for a count of 7
- Exhale completely through your mouth for a count of 8
- Repeat this sequence three more times, completing four breath cycles in total
If the counting and holding method proves too complex, any form of deep, slow breathing can have a soothing effect and assist in returning to sleep. One uncomplicated method is to lie on your back in bed, extend your legs, and keep your arms at your sides. Envision your lungs as balloons, take the deepest breath possible to fill the balloons, and then exhale completely to deflate them. Repeat this process as needed or until you feel comfortable.
4. Boring Mind Games:
The more you consciously attempt to force yourself back to sleep, the more challenging it becomes to achieve. Instead, shift your focus to something else. Whether you're mentally counting sheep or envisioning a serene island beach, the principle remains the same; you're diverting your mind from 'I can't sleep; I can't sleep; I can't sleep' to something else. Engaging in any form of visualisation or repetition, such as counting breaths, counting backwards from 100 or even reciting childhood poems, can induce a sense of relaxation in your brain, aiding in the process of returning to sleep.
5. Listen to Relaxing Music:
Use our Luxury Bluetooth Sleep Mask Headphones (perfect for side sleepers) and listen to your favourite music or white noise. Studies indicate that music can significantly impact the parasympathetic nervous system, prompting the body to unwind and prepare for sleep. It has the potential to decelerate heart rate and breathing, reduce blood pressure, and induce muscle relaxation - the physiological transformations associated with the process of falling asleep.
As for the most effective type of music, it’s all down to personal preference. We are more likely to relax when listening to familiar and enjoyable tunes. Research findings suggest that music within the range of 60 to 80 beats per minute (with 60 BPM representing the lower end of a healthy resting heart rate) is particularly effective, with classical music being an ideal choice. We find chillout, lo-fi and meditation playlists the most beneficial for relaxation.
6. Explore Sleep Apps:
Consider using sleep apps, as they often offer relaxing stories, music, or sounds to aid sleep. Many apps provide free trials to help you discover the most effective option for you.
Our favourite is Headspace - their ‘Sleepcasts’ are designed for the same purpose as a visualisation, only a narrator does the work of creating the distraction for you. To help you drift off, soothing voices guide you through dreamy environments like Desert Campfire, Downriver, and Night Town.
7. Try a Sleep Supplement:
Last but not least, try taking a natural sleep supplement like Sleepee. Sleepee contains 11 potent ingredients that work together to increase your body’s melatonin levels (the sleep hormone), meaning you will fall into a deeper sleep and be less likely to wake up in the night. If you do, you’ll be much more likely to get back to sleep faster. And, best of all, you won’t have that groggy feeling the next day like you get with prescription sleep medication.
Trying all of the above can give you the best possible chance of sleeping through the night. But remember: ease off the pressure. The more you tell yourself you can’t sleep, the more likely it’ll be that you won’t. Instead, reassure yourself that lying in bed with your eyes closed, even without being fully asleep, is still restorative for the mind and body. Sleep will come, we promise.
Up for a challenge?
Try our free Two Weeks to Better Sleep challenge! Sign up here.
Think 'Couch to 5K' - but for your sleep. It’s all about manageable daily challenges that transform your bedtime routine and ultimately lead to better, deeper sleep - long-term.
Sign up today, and over the next 14 days, we’ll be offering 3-4 daily tips and challenges that - combined with taking our Sleepee supplement - will give you the best possible chance of sleep success.
Note: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.