How I Cope With My Middle Of The Night Wakings

man sleeping

How often do you wake up in the depths of the night? Do you roll over and soon fall asleep again, or does your busy mind have other ideas?

The best time to be worrying about life’s trials and tribulations probably isn’t at 4 a.m. in the dark. Yet, we seem to do just that more often than we’d like to.

Whatever the initial reason is that you woke up, worrying about it happening can keep you awake even longer. It’s a vicious circle that I used to find myself stuck in several times a week.

And even though I still regularly wake up long before the dawn chorus, I’ve developed some effective coping strategies.

This type of sleep disturbance is sometimes called sleep maintenance insomnia. It can be frustrating and lead to sleep deprivation, which as you may already know only too well, is far from ideal for your overall well-being.

For me, it was reading a fascinating new perspective about late-night wakings not necessarily being such a bad thing that helped me stay calmer when it happened.

The idea is to accept that it just happens to some people. Understand and accept that you can still get enough sleep to be at your best. And learn to fill that waking time better, rather than ruin the rest of your sleep through stressing about it.

I’ll be looking at that theory in more detail later in the article. But first, I think it’s useful to first go over some of the main reasons people tend to wake up.

As much as accepting it can help in some circumstances, there are also many causes for nocturnal wakings that can either be fixed with simple adjustments to your life, or that require medical treatment.

If none of those apply to you though, perhaps the later section will prove as useful to you as it did to me.

Why do we wake up in the night unexpectedly?

Your nocturnal wakings might be caused by an underlying condition or lifestyle choice. Identifying that cause and dealing with it appropriately might help you sleep in longer blocks.

Some causes can be addressed yourself with self-help or lifestyle changes. Others might need the help of a medical professional.

Let’s take a look at some possible explanations:

1. A sleep disorder

Some sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, can cause nocturnal wakings. If you, or anyone else, notice any irregularity with your breathing in the night or you snore loudly, it’s important to speak to your doctor.

The sleep disorder narcolepsy, which causes people to fall asleep uncontrollably during the day can lead to waking randomly too. If this happens to you, it’s important to seek medical advice.

While some people will wake up from time to time, for others it can be a sign of insomnia. If it’s a chronic problem for you, and affecting your life, then it’s a good idea to practice good sleep hygiene and speak to your doctor about it.

2. An underlying mental health issue, anxiety or stress

There’s a range of mental health issues which can lead to sleep problems. People who suffer from anxiety or stress, for example, can have disturbed sleep. And when that flurry of thoughts and worries arrives, it can be hard to fall asleep again.

3. Needing to go to the bathroom

There are several reasons why you may need to wake up to use the toilet, such as:

  • Drinking too much liquid before bed.
  • Men with an enlarged prostate.
  • Diabetes.
  • Overactive bladder or bladder prolapse.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Some medications.

If you struggle to control your bladder at night or during the day, it might be worth asking your doctor to check for an underlying condition. It might also help to stop drinking liquids in the two to three hours before bed.

4. Alcohol

Alcohol can trigger wakings for several reasons:

  • Alcohol withdrawal can wake you up, particularly if you drink heavily on a regular basis.
  • Excessive liquid can lead to the need to run to the bathroom.
  • Alcohol can have an effect on the time spent in different sleep stages.

5. Noise

Whether it’s a partner snoring, sleep talking, grinding their teeth, or the traffic outside rumbling away, noise can disrupt many people’s sleep.

It’s a huge problem for me personally. And despite the existence of a myriad of clever ways to block out noise, for me, simple foam earplugs are usually the most effective.

If this is an issue for you, you might find it useful to read my other tips for reducing bedroom noise.

6. Hunger, thirst, and indigestion

Hunger, thirst, and indigestion can all cause problems at night. For some people, it might help to have a little to drink before bed, but only enough to keep you hydrated – not so much that it contradicts what I said in point 3 too much!

Try to eat your main meal earlier in the day and only have a light snack before bed if you’re hungry. And if you have eaten a heavy or rich meal before bed, perhaps eat a yogurt or take a calcium-based tablet to stave off any indigestion problems.

7. Bad dreams or other parasomnias

Children and adults alike can be woken up by nightmares or other disturbing events in their sleep. If this is an issue for you, it might help to read my article about nightmares.

8. You change shift or time zone

It’s very common for shift workers to have problems with their sleep. Doctors, nurses, pilots, flight attendants, and frequent international business travelers, to name just a few, will know how hard it can be to quickly adjust to a change in their shift, time zone, or sleep patterns.

There’s plenty of self-help advice available for shift workers. One good starting point is the UCLA website, which has a useful guide for shift workers.

Could waking up in the night be part of a normal sleeping pattern?

Let’s go back to the point I made at the start of the article. Is it really so bad to wake up in the night, as long as you manage to get enough sleep overall?

Back in the 1990s, the psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted a study in which he kept participants in darkness for 14 hours a day for one month.

This was to follow as closely as possible the natural cycle of day and night, where we experience 14 hours of darkness on an average day (depending on where and when you live).

Once they had managed to establish a sleep pattern, it became evident that they would sleep for 3-5 hours, then wake up for 1-3 hours. After that, they would sleep again for another 3-5 hours.

It appeared that their natural sleep cycle was to wake up in the night, but not at the cost of less sleep overall.

Before electricity

light bulbs in the night

An interesting point of view is that before electricity was harnessed, many people probably had more time available for sleeping at night. And the natural reaction to the long, dark night was to have segmented sleep.

The hours of darkness have greatly reduced in the modern world due to the availability of lighting, as well as an ever-increasing drive towards efficiency.

So in our fast-paced day and age, we’ve compressed how much time we allow for sleep and try to get it all done in one block.

Wehr’s study showed that people might prefer to sleep in two phases though. So if you have an inability to sleep through the night, perhaps all is not lost.

This theory is further backed up in a book published in 2005 by the historian Roger Ekirch (At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past).

Nighttime wakings throughout history

Ekirch’s book contains hundreds of references to historical descriptions across the globe of sleeping in two phases.

From the authors Homer, Dickens and Cervantes to medieval medical books and anthropological reports of the Tiv tribe in Nigeria, it’s a fascinating account.

There are descriptions of people doing varied activities in the early hours of the morning, such as relaxing, talking, reading and writing. Some would get out of bed to practise their religious beliefs, visit family or neighbors; others would try to conceive.

Curiously, Ekirch notes that the term ‘sleep maintenance insomnia’ first appeared during the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th Century. And that’s also when references to segmented sleep all but disappeared.

It’s okay if you wake up for a while

Sleep psychologist Greg Jacobs agrees that it’s normal for people to wake up in the night. And that this was how we slept naturally until recently.

He’s joined by a growing number of scientists who believe that it might even be counterproductive to believe you must get a solid seven hours’ sleep, every night. This expectation could cause anxiety, panic and stress when your sleep doesn’t go according to plan.

Jacobs suggests that the short waking during the night could have been an important time for people to regulate stress. In the dark hours, they were forced into a period of relaxation and meditation.

So what can we learn from this idea of sleeping in two phases? The first thing to take away is the concept of not worrying about sleeping right through the night.

As long as you have enough sleep either side of this period, my view is that it doesn’t matter if you spend some time awake at 3 a.m. – especially if the quantity and quality of sleep are not having an adverse effect on your day-to-day life.

So perhaps it’s time to decide what to do with that time you spend awake.

What to do during that time awake?

So what should you do with this quiet time? Well, that’s up to you to decide. But I’d recommend an activity which is relaxing, calm and not overstimulating. It’s probably not the best time to check in on work, play Fortnite on your phone or watch a horror movie.

Here are some ideas to try:

  • Relaxation exercises
  • Quiet, calm reflection
  • Meditation
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Practice your religious belief
  • Gentle yoga
  • Mindfulness exercises
  • Listen to the radio or a quiet podcast (my personal favorite is ‘Get Sleepy’)
  • Just spend time enjoying how comfortable your bed is, how warm and safe you feel. Focus your attention on how nice it feels to be tucked up in bed.

The key is to spend your wake time positively, doing or thinking about something that makes you feel good. Don’t just lie there and expect your brain to be quiet and switch off – it doesn’t always play nicely!

The main point for me personally is not let yourself get stressed. As long as it’s not impacting your quality of life or your well-being, don’t worry if your sleep doesn’t seem to follow a ‘perfect’ pattern.

This worked for me, and I hope it helps you too!

When to seek medical advice

Despite my focus on acceptance in this article, if you’re worried that waking up regularly and for long periods of time is impacting on your life and well-being, please talk to your doctor about it. They might decide to check for an underlying sleep disorder or medical condition.

If they think that you have a form of insomnia that needs treating, they might prescribe medication. But it may be that they discuss good sleep habits with you or suggest specialist therapy to help with your sleep.

Your thoughts

Are you awake in the night more often that you would like to be? What do you do to cope with it? Please share your thoughts in the comment below.

106 thoughts on “How I Cope With My Middle Of The Night Wakings”

  1. Hello Ethan,
    I have just come across your site & thought I would share my sleep issues with you & maybe you can suggest something.
    I will go to bed around 10:30 each night and go to sleep quite quickly, I will then wake up after approx 3 hours & then will not be able to get back to sleep until approx 6am, when I fall into a very deep sleep. My alarm will go off at 7am & have to get up then in order to be at work in time.
    I have tried pretty much everything, reading, mindfulness, moving to another bed, drugs (nytol), none of which have any effect.
    Doesn’t matter if I have alcohol that evening at all – the result is the same drunk or sober.
    This has been going on now for about 8 years & is getting me down.
    Steve Griffiths

    1. Hi Steeve
      Thanks for sharing your experience. That is a long time to be awake, and must be frustrating for you. What do you usually do during those three hours? Do you lie in bed ‘trying’ to fall asleep again? Are you thinking and feeling annoyed about being awake? Do you read, or get up for a bit?

  2. Hi Ethan,

    Thank you so much for your very informative article on sleep. I have always struggled with getting to sleep and often wake at the same time almost every night. I take several holistic supplements and exercise daily to help me relax as I am very high strung (anxiety issues too). Up until 1.5 years ago, I was working 70 hours a week as AE at UPS. My mind never shuts off and the more I toss and turn the more anxious I get about not sleeping. Sleep is a trigger for me which means I then focus on it to the point that I make myself miserable.

    Your mention of not focusing on that and understanding that if we are functioning at the current sleep patterns, then all is well.

    Thank you again, your information has been such a blessing to me and I will take these thoughts to bed with me tonight and hopefully not focus on the “not getting enough sleep”.

    1. Hi Shanda
      Thanks for sharing your experience. I hope the article does help and you find a way to relax and not worry about your sleep so much. I think finding ways to tackle anxiety in general could help, whether that’s more intensive self-work or simple relaxation exercises to do at night to take your mind off your thoughts.
      Getting to the root cause of your anxiety will hopefully help, especially if you can both tackle what makes you anxious and your response to it.

  3. Richard Perreault

    I often wake up at 5:30 for no reason. When I do my mind goes to work thinking about everything I do or have to do. Often not stressful things. After about an hour or two, my mind quiets down and I go back tho sleep. Then I wake up around 8 or 9 often groggy. It usually does not affect my day.

    1. Hi Richard
      Thanks for your comment. As long as it’s not affecting your day, and the grogginess goes away quickly, I guess it’s not such an issue. Perhaps the article will help you shorten that waking time though by relaxing more when it happens.

  4. I have not been sleeping well for so long now, I can’t even remember when it all started. I wake up 4 -10 times a night, sometimes to use the bathroom, other times just wake up and roll over. I always fall back to sleep easily and I don’t feel tired the next day, so I was beginning to believe this is going to be my new sleep pattern. I am a very vivid dreamer and always have been. I can still recall dreams from years & years ago. Kind of scary at times. I always say I must live a boring life and my dreams make up for it. (laughing) On a few occasions, I have had trouble falling asleep because I was not tired. And once again, I don’t feel tired the next day, even on 2 &1/2 hours of sleep. I always heard when you get older you will require less sleep so I guess I believe that to be true. I am 69. But I am always thinking I need to get better sleep. I liked what you had to say and will not put any more pressure on myself that I should be getting more sleep. Thank you!!

    1. Hi Nadine
      Thanks for your comment. I’m happy to hear the article was useful for you. I think they actually now say that older adults do still need enough good quality sleep! But waking and falling asleep again several times isn’t such a problem as long as you get enough good sleep. We cycle through different sleep stages in the night anyway, and I think some people are more prone to brief wakings from light sleep stages – I do the same, and as long as I get enough sleep overall, it’s not something I feel affects my daily life.

  5. I have segmented sleep and your article is reassuring. It is stress/PTSD related. I just want that elusive 7hrs of straight sleep. I’m still not sure though how to solve this. Is it better to do something like a Melatonin trial or go straight to a combination product? I’ve tried Magnesium supplementation and CBD (no THC) with no results. Is it all just trial and error?

    1. Hi Carolyn
      Thanks for your comment. Do you get 7 hours in total though? Or does your segmented sleep still leave you with not enough total sleep? As for supplements/sleep aids, unless a doctor recommends something specifically, it kind of is trial and error if you want to go down that road. Personally, I think its good to start with the most well-tolerated remedies, like herbal teas or supplements first before moving on to those which have more potential side effects and less studies done to ascertain their safety.

  6. Thanks Ethan for helping relieve some of the anxiety. Everybody and their routine differs, so this perception of two sleep periods just might work for some! Having a partner can complicate things though. BTW- I’ve been able to help some men bothered by waking in the middle of the night to urinate with 1 cap of Beta Glucan (Saw Palmetto) a day to support the prostate. I’m thinking that if that resolves the problem, they can be relieved to know it’s a nutritional thing and is fixable.

    1. Hi Ingrid
      Thanks for your comment and interesting suggestion. Drinking less liquid in the evening is also a good idea for people who wake to use the bathroom!

  7. A million thanks to Ethan for this article!
    I don’t have sleeping problems for many years and I am now 54. About a month ago, there are significant changes in my family, some sort of financial and job security issues. At the same time, I have some health problem such as having flu and minor tinnitus. Then I find that in the last month, I cannot sleep through the night until morning as usual. At first, I am anxious and stress about this problem of waking in the middle of the night. Sometimes I find myself awake after I have had a dream, and this wake up can happen up to 3 or 4 times. Usually, I can get back to sleep in a short time by focusing on my breath in bed. At the same time, I was not too tired in the day time even this happens. But this already triggers my anxiety again whether I have some problem in health. In the last two weeks, I spent more time, say 20 to 30 mins on mindfulness and meditation before bed, as I think this wake up issue is mainly due to recent family stress and personal health anxiety. The situation is now getting improved after I calm down myself before bed by doing meditation. And now after reading this article, perhaps it may not be such a bad thing if sleep is segmented?

    1. Hi Henry
      Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad to hear the article was useful. It’s great that you’ve had success with mindfulness and meditation – I’m a big believer in the power of those self-help techniques to improve sleep.
      I also think it’s fine to wake in the night – as long as you still get enough sleep overall to feel like you can do what you need to the next day without feeling tired. Perhaps try some of the meditation and breathing if you wake up and feel anxious.

  8. I have a neighbor with an obnoxiously loud car, who leaves for work daily at 3 am. Unfortunately, my bedroom is at the front of the house, so in essence, he is revving up that car about 25 feet from my bed. Sometimes, the car is being serviced. His alternative transportation? A Harley!! My husband finally moved to the back of the house, to cope, although he gets up very early, too. The result has been my staying awake from about 2:30 (expecting it), until my husband leaves around 6am. I have been amazed how well stuffing cottonballs into my ears has worked, although I really miss having my window open. Since this has been going on now for a few years, now, my body has learned this pattern, and staying asleep (as well as going back to sleep) through this time has been a challenge. I read several of your articles about sleep, and I’m working with a counselor to get my sleep back to normal. Thank you for writing these great articles, chock-full of good information!

    1. Hi Julia
      Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you found some helpful articles here. That sounds very annoying – if cottonballs help, have you thought about trying proper earplugs instead?

  9. Hi, I wake up about every 4 hrs usually to use the bathroom. And sometimes I just wake up. During the time i try to meditate or read. Sometimes rare I feel restless. What’s interesting is what you said about anxiety from thinking you need the 8 hrs, or you are not going to function. I get the anxiety and I really should not? Like now I set my alarm I have 10 hrs and 51 mins till it goes off. I will go to sleep wake in 4 hrs and be sad cause how am I going to be in the morning? But your article helped so much I didn’t even realize this was giving me anxiety. Thank you.

    1. Hi Kim
      Thanks for your comment, and I’m pleased the article was helpful. Have you considering the possibility that going to bed 11 hours before you need to get up is likely to lead to waking much earlier than your alarm time, simply because you probably already got enough sleep?

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