How To Fall Back Asleep If You Wake Up In The Middle Of The Night, According To Experts
There’s nothing more frustrating than falling asleep… only to wake up a few hours later. Whether it’s from insomnia or other factors, there are reasons that some people cannot sleep through the night. Of course, there are ways to get back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night, but you may want to first determine why you’re doing so, according to sleep experts.
For instance, drinking alcohol can be a factor in interrupting your sleep. “Alcohol is notorious for disrupting sleep,” Dr. Jennifer Caudle, Family Physician and Associate Professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, tells Bustle. Therefore, she says that cutting out alcohol can improve sleep.
“Even though alcohol may make us feel sleepy and ready to ‘hit the sack,’ sleep is often interrupted and of poor quality when alcohol has been involved — so an immediate benefit of not drinking might be feeling more rested and getting better sleep at night.” As an on again-off again insomniac, I can vouch for Dr. Caudle’s theory. I gave up drinking alcohol in January and mostly continue to do so, and I’ve definitely noticed a difference on the nights I skip drinking.
However, there are other reasons, too, you may wake up in the middle of the night. Below, experts weigh in on how to get back to sleep.
1. Drink Warm Milk With Honey Or Herbal Tea
You may have been raised hearing that warm milk can help you fall back asleep, and it’s not just an old wives’ tale. Dr. Benjamin Smarr, National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley and Reverie Sleep Advisory Board Member, agrees, saying to add honey, too. “The warmed sugar and fat really do combine to promote sleep,” he tells Bustle.
If you’re lactose-intolerant or not a fan of milk, you can try a soothing tea. “Chamomile tea is a classic sleep aid, but lemon balm tea is a great option to keep in the cupboard, too,” Gabrielle Gray, holistic health coach and the manager of Maha Rose Center for Healing in Brooklyn, tells Bustle. “Though you might think of lemon as stimulating, this tea is far from it: it soothes nerves and has been found to be effective in easing insomnia.”
2. Drop The Temperature In Your Bedroom
Serta’s sleep health expert Natalie Dautovich, PhD, environmental fellow at National Sleep Foundation, says that dropping the temperature in your bedroom can help you fall back asleep. “A cool bedroom is conducive to better sleep — room temperatures between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit are optimal,” she tells Bustle. “A drop in core body temperature is associated with feeling sleepy, so cooler temperatures can help with sleep onset.”
3. Don’t Use Your Phone Or Light Sources
You’ve probably heard that using your phone, Kindle, or other electronic devices that emit light are not good right before bed, so the same goes for middle-of-the-night insomnia.
And a study was published last year in the journal PLOS One that backed up the no-phones-before-bed theory. Dr. Smarr agrees about not using light sources if you want to get back to sleep. “Light and attention-grabbers (Netflix, news, or games on your phone, etc.) inhibit the brain’s sleep centers,” he says. “Sleep is supposed to happen when it’s dark and you feel calm and safe. As tempting as it may be to grab your phone when you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t!” He adds that switching on bright lights sends your melatonin levels racing, and can make it much harder to get back to sleep.
Fun fact: If you want to avoid the temptation of reaching for your phone in the middle of the night, you can always get something like Bagby, which is a sleeping bag for your phone that you can keep across the room.
4. Create A To-Do List
Dr. Sujay Kansagra, Mattress Firm’s sleep health expert and the director of Duke University’s Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program, suggests creating a to-do list. “In our fast-paced world, sometimes lying in bed is the first time you have to actually think about what’s on this list,” he tells Bustle. “By creating a list of tasks (and even writing down your worries), you can prevent yourself from thinking about them excessively while trying to fall asleep.” He says a to-do list can help clear your mind and calm you back down for a night of restful sleeping.
Gray also believes in making a to-do list if you cannot sleep. “If you’re waking up with a restless mind, keep some paper and a pen beside your bed and write what is coming up for you,” she tells Bustle. “Writing can help process some of those swirling thoughts, and making a to-do list is effective for when your busy, taskmaster brain is waking you up.” She also says to allow yourself permission to put anything looming over you on the list, and then leave it there. “It will still be there when you wake up, and you’ll take care of it then. There’s not much you can do about it at 3 a.m. anyway, especially if it’s a work-related issue.”
5. Eat Earlier Or Have A Snack
Indigestion can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night, too, so Dr. Dautovich suggests eating earlier, and having healthy, lighter meals. “Doing this will help you to stay asleep during the night and avoid unwanted awakenings due to indigestion,” she says.
Conversely, Harrison Doan, director of analytics at Loom & Leaf, an online mattress retailer, says hunger may also be another reason you woke up in the middle of the night. “Blood sugar drops during the night, and if it gets too low, the sensation can be so strong it wakes you up,” he says. “Getting up and grabbing a snack is sometimes all you need. Better yet, try eating protein-rich snacks before bed to prevent the issue in the first place.”
Similar to making a to-do list is journaling when you cannot sleep. “If you’re going through emotional challenges that you’re literally losing sleep over, journal about them — release them onto the page,” Gray says. “You can even try journaling some things you are grateful for; experiencing and noting our gratitude on a regular basis helps train the brain to recognize it more in our daily life.” She says that this is especially useful and will bring you peace when you’re in an anxious state in the middle of the night. “This is an effective pre-sleep routine, too, that helps us reflect on our day in a positive light.”
Dr. David Edelson, owner and medical director of HealthBridge in Great Neck, NY, who specializes in SleepMedicine, agrees about journaling. “If you find your mind racing, give yourself permission to put your concerns aside in order to bring your focus back to rest,” he tells Bustle. “Writing things down helps to acknowledge what you are thinking and feeling. You don’t have to worry about forgetting if you jot it down and, often, many things are more easily and clearly addressed after a good night of sleep.”
7. Learn To Listen To Your Body
While you may hear that eight hours is the ideal amount of time to sleep each night, this may vary from person to person, says Dr. Smarr. “Eight hours is a broad population average, but maybe you do fine on six or seven hours,” he says. “Every person has a ‘chronotype,’ which is defined by comparing the timing of their ideal day to the solar day. Our society is built for early chronotypes, but vast numbers of people are later chronotypes, which means they naturally sleep later.” He adds that if you don’t have to get up early, don’t; instead, sleep on your time, and your brain will work better than if you force it to work at the wrong time.
8. Be More Active In The Day
“Get more activity in the day,” Dr. Smarr says. “The first part of sleep is mostly about refreshing your body, so if your body didn’t get much use, it won’t generate much sleep pressure, and falling asleep (or back asleep) will be more difficult.”
Dr. Edelson also believes that being active in the day will help you sleep the whole night. “Exercising in the sunlight helps promote healthy sleep and also improves the natural sleep/wake cycle,” he says. “Yoga ... is a wonderful way to get things moving but also can help reduce stress.”
9. Relax And Think About Staying Awake
Dr. Smarr says that both anxiety and stress and anxiety impair sleep, and that includes anxiety about sleep. “If it’s an off-night (we all have them), then do watch Netflix (something light and funny, not scary),” he says.
“Distract yourself so you’re not an anxiety ball and then, when the adrenaline runs its course while you’re too distracted to care, sleeping will suddenly be much easier.” You should not do this every night however, he says. “Sometimes, not sleeping is fine ... Remember moderation in all things, including moderation.”
Katie Davis, PsyD, a Manhattan-based clinical neuropsychologist and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins, agrees. “The biggest tip I give to patients with sleep problems is to not worry too much if they can’t sleep,” she tells Bustle. “There is no set amount of sleep you need, and a night or two of poor sleep won’t have as much of an effect on you as you might think.”
Dr. Davis suggests not trying to force yourself back to sleep. “Just get out of bed, do something quiet and relaxing, and go back to bed when you’re tired again,” she says. “Also, don’t keep a visible clock next to your bed. Seeing the time in the middle of the night will only make you more worried about sleeping.”
Also, even though you may be inclined to be anxious about falling back asleep, you may want to try the opposite and think about staying away, Dr. Kansagra says. “It sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re having trouble falling asleep, think about doing the opposite — this often lessens anxiety and gives your mind a chance to relax enough to fall asleep,” he says. “It’s a technique known as paradoxical intent.”
10. Try Meditating Or Doing Yoga
When I cannot sleep, and even to initially fall asleep, I use the Headspace app, which has several meditations, including sleep-centric ones. Hint: There are a bunch of free meditations, so it’s definitely worth a try.
Dr. Dautovich, too, recommends meditating when you cannot fall back asleep. “Practice meditation and manage stressful thoughts with relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing or progressive relaxation,” she says. “Checking the clock, calculating how much time you have until you have to wake, thinking about the upcoming day, etc,. will increase your cognitive arousal and make it that much more difficult to fall asleep.”
Along the same lines, Dr. Kansagra suggests trying progressive relaxation. “This involves taking slow, deep breaths, and slowly tensing the muscles in your body for a few seconds and then relaxing them,” he says. “Start at your feet, and work your way up the body. This can help you relax and get back in the mood for sleep.”
Doan also says to try a soothing activity if you cannot sleep. “Try getting out of bed and doing a quiet activity without light, like meditation, an audiobook, or yoga,” he says. “Often, the act of trying to fall asleep engages our minds so much that it becomes counterproductive. Low-energy activities like these help to relax your mind, making you sleepy and ready to hop back into bed.”
11. Establish A Healthy Bedtime Routine
Do you go to bed at the same time every day and practice good sleep habits? Dr. Edelson says establishing a healthy nightly routine can help you to reach the deep restorative phases of sleep known as slow-wave sleep.
“These positive habits before bed, known as sleep hygiene, will improve this critical time for your body and mind,” he tells Bustle. “In the restorative phase of sleep, neurons are regenerated, synaptic connections are repaired, and critical hormones get replenished.”
Dr. Edelson says that having a defined time to go to bed at night and awaken in the morning will help develop a natural circadian rhythm. In addition, he says to make your bedroom a restful environment. “Avoid eating and working in your bedroom, and treat it as a sacred space for relaxation,” he says.
He also suggests making sure the room is fully dark and free of sound, and wearing an eye mask and earplugs if necessary. “And don’t forget to empty your bladder, as a full bladder can also be stimulating,” he says. Like others, he says DO NOT turn on the TV, phone, or computer as the light will increase wakefulness.
When To See A Doctor
All in all, if you still are waking up in the middle of the night, speak to your doctor, Dr. Edelson says. “If waking during the night is a recurring issue, this may be a sign of something else going on,” he says. “Sleep disorders are very common, and correcting the rhythm is essential. Your doctor may have some simple advice to further improve your sleep hygiene practices and can also help you identify other flags for sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea.”
Dr. Edelson adds that poor sleep quality or inadequate hours of sleep can have adverse effects on your health beyond just fatigue. “[E]levated blood pressure, and a weakened immune system are just a few ways a lack of quality [sleep] can take a toll,” he says.
Overall, as you can see, there are many ways to fall back asleep if you wake up in the middle of the night. The more tips, the better, but the only way to see if they work is trying them for yourself.