5 Common Reasons for Waking Up in the Middle of the Night, According to a Sleep Doctor

Photo: Getty Images/Karl Tapales
Name me something more annoying than waking up in the middle of the night and then having trouble heading back into sleep. I'll wait. Well, as irritating as that situation as may be, it's worth noting that one the most common reasons for waking up in the middle of the night is because it's simply part of your normal sleep cycle. But how long are you supposed to be stuck awake when that happens, how many instances of waking up each night is too many, and if that number does err on side of excessive, what could be causing the extra wake-ups?

"Everyone wakes up five to seven times per night between finishing complete sleep cycles," says sleep expert Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. "Each awakening is extremely brief in nature, and we fall right back asleep with amnesia for it."

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Or, at least, that's the way it's supposed to go. That said, experiencing two or three wake-ups that you actually remember is common and is generally NBD for your snooze time—so long as you're able to return to sleep relatively quickly, Dr. Harris adds. Age can play a factor here, given that younger people tend to awaken once or twice a night briefly, whereas older people tend to have more "broken, shallow sleep."

No matter your age, though, what matters more than the number of times you wake up (and remember it) is the the duration of how long the disruption lasts—and whether your mornings feel messed up as a result. "You could awaken only twice at night, but if one awakening is for an hour many times a week, that’s likely a problem," Dr. Harris says.

So, if you're feeling exhausted from your broken sleep and haven't been able to pinpoint a culprit, check out the top five reasons for waking up in the middle of the night (beyond being part of a normal sleep-wake cycle) that Dr. Harris sees with her clients. And, as with any issue having to do with your personal health, seeking the advice of a medical professional may help you move forward effectively.

Below, find 5 common reasons that might explain why you're waking up in the middle of the night (and what to do about each).

1. Snoring

It could be your own snores that are the problem or a bedmate. Regardless, since snoring can be a health concern, seeing a sleep doctor for snoring would be a smart next step.

2. Nature calling…a lot

Hell hath no bleary-eyed fury like having to drag your feet to the bathroom at 3 a.m. If you see yourself making that crawl nightly and then find it hard to get back to sleep, try to hydrate mindfully. While good hydration can lead to a better night's sleep overall, Dr. Harris says to steer clear of fluids three hours before bedtime. Or perhaps, try to keep your anxiety in check, because it could be anxiety at play, not your beverage intake.

3. Discomfort that leads to tossing and turning

I feel this on every level—particularly physically. I assume it's why I always sleep better in the comfy queen bed of my childhood versus the rush-order budget mattress in my apartment. While I understand (firsthand) that investing in a new mattress isn't the easiest of quick fixes to make, now might be the time to switch your blanket or streamline your pillow situation.

4. Temperature

The National Sleep Foundation recommends a temp between 60°F and 67°F for optimal snoozing, so consider the climate of your sleeping sanctuary. "Your bedroom should be cool and comfortable," says Dr. Harris. "We often go to bed cold and have the room warmer than ideal, only to wake up middle of the night due to sweating."

If you still need to cocoon yourself at bedtime, cooling blankets are available to you, as are cooling pillows, sheets, and mattress inserts. And for an option that doesn't involve cash? Strip down and sleep naked!

5. Anxiety or an active brain

It's super-possible that while your body might be snug as a bug, your mind is running running a marathon of sorts. That, too, can keep you awake. It's also possible that you may be able to drift off, "but once you’ve been asleep for a few hours, you might awaken between sleep cycles, and whatever was on your brain before bed is likely going to be there—and stronger—middle of the night," Dr. Harris says.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution for this, of course, but one recommendation sleep specialist Nate Watson, MD, previously told Well+Good was to keep a worry journal before bed. Try jotting down what's nagging at you for a few nights in a row if you find yourself sick with worry. And no matter what may be the cause, armed with new and specific knowledge, the hope is that pleasant (uninterrupted!) dreams can be in your near future.

By the way, social jet lag might be the reason you sleep terribly on Sundays. And if you have trouble falling asleep on the plane, meet the chiropractor-approved neck pillow of your dreams!

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