How to get back to sleep when you wake up in the middle of the night

Wondering how to get back to sleep? Try these expert hacks to help you nod off again...

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If you’ve ever found yourself wondering how to get back to sleep in the middle of the night, you’re not the only one. Many people will suffer from instances of wide-eyed wakefulness at 3am, leaving them desperate to nod off again, at various points in their lives. Fortunately, there are many snooze-inducing tools you can enlist to ensure you still wake up feeling refreshed.

But first, it's important to note that waking up in the small hours is totally normal and shouldn't be a cause for concern—however if it persists then it is known as sleep-maintenance insomnia. Causes can include everything from a stressful work schedule to consuming caffeine a little too late in the day.

To help you boost your chances of a quality slumber, we've called on top sleep experts to share their wisdom. They'll reveal the best ways to drift off again in the small hours, how to boost your chances of a straight night's sleep and when it's time to go to the doctor. Because sometimes even snuggling into the best pillow or spritzing the most calming sleep mist just isn't enough to help you doze back off—although it can certainly help...

How to get back to sleep—try these 5 expert tips

"It's important to know that nighttime wakefulness is not anything to be worried about," says sleep expert Charlie Morley, author of Wake Up To Sleep. "Very few people blackout for eight hours straight, and most of us wake up four or five times a night based on an average eight-hour sleep cycle. These micro awakenings are usually not even noticed, but those who are worried about their sleep often become hypervigilant, meaning that they do notice these micro awakenings, panic and then be too alert to fall back asleep."

Another thing to note is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting better quality sleep. "Try to identify what is causing you to wake," suggests Dr Verena Senn, sleep expert at Emma. "Are you going through a period of heightened emotions or stress? Are you regularly needing to use the bathroom in the early hours of the morning? Are you being woken up by your partner’s snoring? Once you have a better understanding of the cause, you can begin to take practical steps to manage the issue."

Having a strategy in place can give you a better chance of drifting off again when you wake up in the middle of the night. Try these simple expert-approved tips for getting back to sleep...

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1. Begin with meditation

The first step is to not become anxious about having woken up. "Don't check the time," insists Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert, neurophysiologist and author of Finding Inner Safety. "By doing this, we bring ourselves into full wakefulness and it is harder to get back to sleep."

If you're struggling to nod off again, turn to meditation. "Breathe deeply from your diaphragm and tell yourself that it doesn’t matter if you don’t fall asleep and that you will just use the time to rest and relax," explains Dr Ramlakhan. "We want to trigger the production of oxytocin, the love and trust hormone, which induces a feeling of inner safety and peace. When we feel safe, we produce melatonin, and we sleep."  

2. Use the 20-minute rule

If you're awake longer than 20 minutes, it might be time for a different approach. “Leave the sleeping zone if you can't get back to sleep,” advises sleep expert Sammy Margo. “Get out of bed, make it, and walk away. Go do something that’s not too taxing, such as reading a magazine article or unloading the dishwasher."

Then, return and start your bedtime routine again. "You want to activate your parasympathetic relaxation system," explains Morley. Perhaps try some bedtime yoga or listen to sleep-guided meditations to encourage your body and mind to wind down before you get into your go-to sleeping position once more.

3. Avoid blue light

While you might be tempted to reach for your laptop to check emails or watch an episode on Netflix, it will only put you further away from nodding off. "Blue light exposure suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin," warns Margo. "Instead, try listening to an audiobook or do some meditation."

You could also try a visualization. A study by the University of Oxford found that people who used imagery distraction—in which they visualized a peaceful setting or environment—fell asleep faster than those who did not. “Often, you will drift off while doing this,” says Margo. “But if not, employ the 20-minute rule and leave the sleep zone if this isn’t working.”

Whatever you do, try not dwell on the frustration of being awake. "This will only increase your anxiety and inhibit the restful state needed to fall back to sleep," adds Dr Senn.

4. Grab a notepad

A key driver behind sleep disturbance is stress. Fortunately, research by Eastern Michigan University has found that writing can help organize your thoughts and empty the mind of worries. 

“If anxious thoughts are preventing you from getting back to sleep, keep a notepad beside your bed so you can scribble your worries down if you wake up during the night,” suggests Margo. “That way you can reflect on and review them the next day.” Alternatively, you could write down five things you are grateful for—from wearing your favorite cozy pajamas to having a safe place to rest your head—to help induce relaxation again.

5. Tweak your environment

It'll be easier to fall back asleep if you're surroundings are optimal for snoozing. That includes keeping your room cool. "About 68°F is the ideal temperature,” says Margo. “Turn off any radiators and wear wool and cashmere fabrics, as these self-regulate your body temperature. If you’re hot, pop a cold flannel on your head to help you cool down or splash some cold water on your wrists.”

Additionally, make sure that a noisy bedfellow or a light won't affect your ability to snooze once more. “Make sure that your curtains and blinds are closed and wear an eye mask,” recommends Margo. “Your body loves absolute darkness when going to sleep, and maybe you’re waking up because of light or noise disturbance. Also, invest in some of the best earplugs for sleep to help reduce the surrounding noise in your environment.” 

How do I stop waking up during the night? 

There are also steps you can take before bed to help you sleep better and improve the likelihood you'll pass serenely through the sleep cycles...

Woman meditating before bed

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1. Get nice and relaxed

From balancing the pressure of children and work to looking after elderly parents, our lives are often fraught with stress. "Do relaxing things during the day," advises Morley. "The parasympathetic drive - which is like a relaxation battery that gets charged up every time we do anything relaxing—helps you fall asleep and remain so. Try practices like yoga nidra or a massage."

You can also wind down simply through inhaling and exhaling. “A great technique is 4-7-8 breathing,” says sleep expert Dr Lindsay Browning. “Breathe in deeply through your nose for a count of four, then hold that breath for a count of seven and breathe steadily out through pursed lips for a count of eight. Slowing your breathing rate down like this helps you to feel more relaxed.” Do this every evening or at the end of your working day to signal relaxation time for your body and mind.

2. Beware what you drink

"You might feel like a cup of coffee is exactly what you need to keep you awake and alert after a bad night's sleep, but relying on caffeine can become a vicious circle, keeping you awake later at night," warns Dr Ramlakhan. "Cutting back on it can hugely enhance your sleep. Ideally, you should avoid caffeine after 4pm. As well as coffee, it is advisable to skip tea, fizzy drinks such as Coca-Cola, and even green tea too.

"Also, consume more water. Not only do you lose water throughout the night but being well hydrated can help reduce awakenings and disruptions caused by dehydration, such as a dry mouth and leg cramps." If you want to sip on something in the evening, practice good sleep hygiene by enjoying a sleep tea.

3. Focus on daily movement

“Regular exercise makes it easier to fall and stay asleep,” says Dr Anita Shelgikar, a neurologist at the Michigan Medicine Sleep Disorders Clinic. “However, it's important to consider the timing. Exercising too close to bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep.” 

Aim to do your daily movement in the morning first thing, since exposing yourself to bright light at this time of day helps to kick start your circadian rhythm. From at-home workouts to morning walks, any form of movement is a great way to start your day and will help your body get ready to sleep in the evening. 

4. Limit tech use

"Build healthy boundaries with technology," insists Dr Ramlakhan. "This means leaving electronics out of the bedroom. Ideally, your phone should not be the last thing you look at before your turn your lights out.

"Late bedtimes are often related to technology and social media, with people staying up absorbed by the internet or the television—but the blue light from devices impacts the sleep cycle." Keep away from screens at least an hour before bed.

5. Go to bed early

"You should try and go to bed early, between 9:30pm and 10pm, three or four nights a week," suggests Dr Ramlakhan. "This is about training your body to receive rest earlier. It might be tempting to stay up and watch that extra episode on Netflix, but it can throw your sleep pattern completely out of whack. You don't necessarily have to be sleeping, but resting or doing something that is restful such as a warm bath, reading a book, listening to soothing music, meditating, or writing in a gratitude journal."

Additionally, get yourself ready to wind down early by avoiding napping too close to bedtime or for too long during the day. "They are best when taken early to mid-afternoon and should last around 10 to 20 minutes, allowing you to enter the first stages of restorative sleep without falling into a more groggy deep stage," recommends Dr Senn.

When to speak to your doctor about your sleep problems

"Sleep challenges are often the symptom of broader health challenges and changes rather than anything directly sleep-related," notes Morley. "Work-related stress, menopause, daytime anxiety and even diet can all affect our sleep—so don’t delay in seeing your GP if you want to, but be sure to give them the wider context of what might be affecting your sleep."

But first, it can be helpful to understand what's going on by keeping a sleep diary or using sleep apps to track your sleep cycle and see if there is a pattern of disturbance. “If your sleep problems have been going on for six to eight weeks, then it’s time to consult your doctor,” suggests Margo.

However, it's a good idea to get to the bottom of what's been going on. "Occasional poor nights of sleep can lead us to feel tetchy and irritable," notes Dr Ramlakhan. "But over time, poor sleep can lead to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. For anyone who has long-term sleep problems, seek professional help to find the underlying cause of the sleeplessness and work to address the root problem."

Stacey Carter is a health and wellbeing writer, who works across UK health titles including Natural Health Woman and Health & Wellbeing Magazine. In her spare time, she freelances for other lifestyle brands, including Womanandhome.com.