How to Get Back to Sleep in the Middle of the Night

These 10 tips on how to get back to sleep after waking up will help prevent frustration and fatigue. Getting a good night’s sleep is almost as important as food! These tips on how to get back to sleep after waking up don’t include sleeping pills or natural sleep aids, but I have written about them here on the Sleep Blog. To learn more about prescription and over the counter medications for sleep, read 8 Things You Need to Know About Sleeping Pills.

The most common reason for not being able to get back to sleep in the middle of the night is because you’re mentally and physically alert. For instance, if you got up to use the bathroom, the light wakes you up even more. If you had a disturbing dream, your thoughts may be racing. These strategies for getting back to sleep are about calming your mind and nervous system so you can fall asleep fast.

10 Tips for Getting Back to Sleep

Here are a wide range of strategies for getting sleep – from a wee bit ‘o self-analysis to blackout shades. One of the most important tips is to get out of bed if you’ve been awake for more than 15 minutes or so. Don’t toss and turn; you’ll only get more frustrated.

1. Figure out why you woke up

Did you wake up because of a nightmare, noise outside, or snoring? Knowing your reason for waking up in the middle of the night can help you know how to get back to sleep again. For instance, when I have nightmares I get out of bed and drink water or go to the bathroom – even when I’m not thirsty or ready to pee. I have to leave my bedroom because I know I won’t get back to sleep right away, because my body and mind is on high alert. But when I wake up because my husband is snoring, I can get back to sleep much easier because I’m not on “fight or flight” alert. Getting back to sleep is often easier when you know why you woke up in the first place.

2. Consider your bedding and mattress

how to get back to sleep

Memory Foam Pillow

How old is your mattress, how clean and comfortable are your sheets, and how soft or firm is your pillow? A Iso-Cool Memory Foam Pillow is much more comfortable than a standard $10 pillow (which is what I have). What about your sheets and quilt – are you too warm, or too cold? What you sleep on has a huge effect on how easy it is for you to get back to sleep in the middle of the night.

You might also consider the food and drink in your bedroom, and if you have critters sleeping with you. Crumbs in bed aren’t just a nuisance, they can attract unwanted insects that can keep you awake.

3. Bore yourself to sleep

Here’s one of my favorite tips on how to get back to sleep when you wake up in the middle of the night, from The Owner’s Manual to the Brain: “Get out of bed, leave the bedroom, and engage in a constructive but boring activity in subdued light,” writes Dr Pierce Howard. “Getting up to a large dose of bright light will suppress your melatonin production, which you don’t want to happen.” What is the most boring activity you can do? Don’t watch boring movies or TV shows, because the light on your TV or computer will only wake you up more.

4. Make your bedroom darker

how to get back to sleep

Black Out Pleated Window Shades

Your bedroom shouldn’t have any light coming in from outside, which will help you sleep deeper and longer. When you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, you need to make sure your room is pitch black. Darkness helps the natural hormone melatonin to kick in, which helps us sleep.

If your curtains don’t block all the light, use black out shades on your window – such as the Black Out Pleated Window Shades.

5. Hold someone who is breathing

This sounds like a weird tip on how to get back to sleep in the middle of the night, but you really should try it! It works for me. I hold on to my little dog, who sleeps between me and my husband. I match my breath with hers, so we are breathing at the same time. I’ve also matched my breathing with my husband’s when he’s asleep, and that works almost as well. My dog helps me fall asleep faster because I don’t want to disturb her by moving, so I’m forced to be still. I can’t hold on to my husband, because I get too hot. If you have a bed partner, try matching your breathing to his.

6. Try progressive muscle relaxation

middle of the night sleep tips

Progressive Muscle Relaxation CD

One of my high school teachers would do this exercise with us when we were stressed or over-excited in class. Lie in bed and tense one group of muscles at a time, as tightly as you can. Start with your face, and work all the way down to your feet. Hold for a count of 10 and then relax. Continue to do this for every muscle group in your body. If you’d rather work your way up from your feet to the top of your head, be my guest!

Sometimes it helps to have someone guide you through the relaxation, so you can just relax. Indigo Dreams: Guided Meditation and Relaxation Techniques offers four research-based, stress management techniques that are accepted and used by both the traditional medical and holistic communities.

7. Write your problems down

One of the most common tips on how to get back to sleep in the middle of the night is to keep a pad of paper and pen by your bed. When your anxieties, plans, problems, and worries creep in, write them down. Tell yourself you’ll take care of them tomorrow. I’ve even written letters and emails in the middle of the night – not on my computer, but on a pad of paper. This helps me offload the things that wire me up and stop me from getting back to sleep.

8. Listen to meditative sleep music

How to Get Back to Sleep in the Middle of the Night

Sleep Music

If writing your problems down doesn’t help, listen to white noise or relaxing sleep music. You don’t have to meditate to benefit from the relaxing sound of nature or the ocean. Ocean Waves: Calming Sounds of the Sea is an extremely popular natural sleep remedy for the middle of the night – and for falling asleep in the first place. It’s a digitally mastered CD containing over one hour of crisp clear ocean sounds that are specifically designed for deep sleep, meditation, and relaxation. Creating a natural atmosphere for sleep is an effective way to get back to sleep at 3 a.m. – or anytime.

9. Eat foods for sleep

“Drink a cup of warm milk with honey, eat cheese, yogurt, ice cream,” writes Dr Howard in The Owner’s Manual for the Brain. “Recently I awoke in the middle of the night and just couldn’t figure out how to get back to sleep. I got up, went downstairs, got a couple of ounces of cheese and some walnuts, sat in my favorite reading chair, and munched and read for about 45 minutes. I started to get sleepy, returned to bed, and went to sleep immediately.”

This tip for getting back to sleep wouldn’t work for me any time, much less in the middle of the night, because I rarely eat dairy products. And, a reader commented on my sleep tips for introverts article that she can’t eat dairy because she’s allergic to milk and gluten. So…eating foods for sleep is one of those tips that should be taken with a grain of salt.

10. Reassure yourself that you’ll get enough sleep

When you wake up and can’t get back to sleep in the middle of the night, you feel frustrated and even angry. This makes getting back to sleep even more difficult – and it becomes a vicious downward spiral that affects you all the next day. But it doesn’t have to be that way! If you think you slept well last night, you’ll actually feel more energized the next day. Research from Draganich and Erdal in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition suggests that tweaking your mindset can boost your performance and energy levels. If you focus on your lack of sleep, you’ll increase your anxiety and feelings of fatigue.

So, even if none of these tips on how to get back to sleep work for you, you might try being creative in what you tell yourself the next day. If you tell yourself you slept like the proverbial baby, you will have the energy of a five year old!

What have I missed?

I welcome your thoughts below on what helps you fall asleep, and how you deal with sleeplessness. If nothing on this list seems like it would be helpful, I encourage you to at least try one or two of the tips. You never know what will be effective until you’ve experimented with it.

To learn more about why you wake up in the middle of the night and how to get back to sleep, read 5 Insomnia Causes and Cures.

Sources: 1) Draganich, C., & Erdal, K. (2014). Placebo sleep affects cognitive functioning; and 2) The Owner’s Manual for the Brain by Pierce Howard, PhD.

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