To be clear, that doesn’t mean waking up and staying awake or struggling to fall back asleep should also be your norm. But a few middle-of-the-night awakenings occur naturally as a product of our sleep architecture, meaning the way we cycle between sleep stages throughout the night. “A sleep cycle lasts from 90 to 120 minutes, including the time it takes to transition from lighter to deep sleep and then into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep,” says Dr. Peters. “As a period of REM ends, the person will briefly wake up.”
Why waking up a few times in the middle of the night is normal and won’t impact your sleep quality
Do some math, and you’ll find that in a typical seven- to eight-hour night of sleep, there’s room for about three to five complete sleep cycles—which would also mean, per the above, two to four awakenings between them. Beyond that, it’s also common for people to awaken super briefly out of light sleep as many as 20 to 30 times (!) a night, says neurologist and sleep specialist W. Chris Winter, MD, sleep advisor at Sleep.com and author of The Sleep Solution.
“It is possible to wake up and roll over, adjust the covers, or even briefly talk to someone, and have no recollection in the morning.” —Brandon Peters, MD, neurologist and sleep specialist
That number might seem unlikely, especially if you’re someone who considers themselves a good sleeper. But in many cases, these normal arousals are so short or non-eventful that we don’t remember them. “If the awakening is fewer than five minutes long, there will be no memory of it,” says Dr. Peters. “It is also possible to roll over, adjust the covers, or even briefly talk to someone, and have no recollection in the morning.”
Lo and behold, upon recently looking at my own hypnogram for a night of sleep via Amazon Halo, I was surprised to see that the little line tracking my sleep had spiked upward multiple times on the chart, pointing to several different awakenings during the night—none of which I remembered. While several of these awakenings just appeared to follow REM sleep (in line with the above pattern), some may have been caused by other things, like noise, light, or temperature shifts, says Dr. Peters.
In any case, Dr. Peters says that a few awakenings during the night is typically nothing to worry about and won’t negatively impact your sleep quality—even if you do realize that you’re awake throughout the night or get up from bed for a few minutes, say, to pee. Ironically, what can affect your sleep quality is when you wake up in the middle of the night and start to worry about that reality.
What to do instead of worrying when you wake up in the middle of the night
It can be unsettling to find yourself awake, lying in bed and staring into darkness when you’d rather just be getting those very necessary zzz’s. “People tend to get anxious about waking up in the middle of the night, likely because they fear the consequences of not sleeping,” says Dr. Winter. “Control is probably part of the reason for that, too,” he adds. “There’s a desire to control sleep when we want it to happen and not to be stuck in a situation of not being able to ‘do’ anything.”
But that act of getting worried, annoyed, or feeling really any type of way about a middle-of-the-night awakening can work against you. “If you have one or two bad nights where you’re awake and then start to worry that you’re up or get more worried about whether you’ll sleep well the next night, that’s when you start to put pressure on yourself to sleep—which is the worst thing to do, as sleep can’t be forced,” says clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. In fact, you could end up keeping yourself awake that much longer to negative effect.
Even so, deciding not to worry about a middle-of-the-night awakening is often easier said than done. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do (and avoid doing) to stay calm when you find yourself awake. Up first on that list: Keep your eyes off the clock. “Checking the time can trigger a learned negative emotional reaction,” says Dr. Peters. Consider how you might see that it’s 3 a.m. and then start stressing over how being awake at this time will affect you tomorrow. “This reaction can activate the fight-or-flight response, prolonging wakefulness.”
“If you wake up at any point when your alarm is not going off, tell yourself, ‘Good! I get to go back to sleep,’ so that the awakening becomes a relief, not an aggravation.” —Dr. Peters
To avoid that spiral, he suggests covering up your clock once you’ve set your alarm to remind you not to check the time. Cover up your phone, too, so you’re not tempted to grab it upon waking up, and “go down a rabbit hole of activity that promotes wakefulness,” says Dr. Peters. Instead, if you wake up at any point in the night or morning when your alarm is not going off, tell yourself, ‘Good! I get to go back to sleep,’ says Dr. Peters, “so that the awakening becomes a relief, not an aggravation.”
If you find yourself struggling to fall back asleep, Dr. Peters suggests using a simple mind trick to take your mind’s attention off of your need to sleep—in order to help sleep come naturally. One of his favorites? Coming up with a word for each letter, starting at the end of the alphabet, and then spelling it forward and backward. For instance, you might start with “zebra,” spelling it both forward and backward before moving onto “yellow.” This offers just enough mental stimulation to distract yourself from worries, but not enough to keep you awake long.
And if you find that you’re still awake after what feels like ten or fifteen minutes, sleep specialist Rebecca Robbins, PhD, suggests actually getting out of bed so that you don’t start to condition the bed as a place for wakefulness, rather than sleep. “Try to do something mindless. Fold your laundry, put away your dishes, or read a couple pages of a boring book. And then when you're tired, come back [to bed], and start the process again,” Dr. Robbins previously told Well+Good.
When nighttime awakenings could be negatively affecting your sleep
While, again, waking up in the middle of the night a couple times (and for a few minutes each time) is normal, if it’s happening more frequently or for longer periods of time, it could impact your sleep quality. There’s no specific number of awakenings that is an indicator of a problem, but Dr. Winter says to look out for an increase in the number from your baseline.
That’s also of particular concern if you’re already not getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, given that the awakenings will shorten your total sleep time even further, says Dr. Peters. “The timing of these awakenings may also matter,” he adds. “An awakening early in the night may be less impactful, but waking closer to the morning, when the sleep drive is diminished, could make it harder to fall back asleep, abruptly cutting off the night’s sleep.”
Generally, however, the surest indicator that your nighttime awakenings may actually be a problem for your sleep is if you find that you’re experiencing daytime sleepiness, says Dr. Winter. That’s when it may be time to consider how you might optimize your bedroom’s environment for sleep. “Cool the room [to around 67° F, ideally], reduce noise, block out light, remove electronics, and usher out pets and children,” says Dr. Peters.
If you’re still experiencing frequent or lengthy middle-of-the-night wake-ups and feeling sleepy during the daytime, it would be wise to consult a sleep specialist, says Dr. Winter, just in case a sleep condition like sleep apnea, nocturia, or periodic limb movement disorder may be to blame.
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