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 five expert-approved tricks

How to get back to sleep, illustration of woman stretching in bed
(Image credit: Getty Images)

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. According to the NHS, many of us will suffer from disturbed sleep at some point in our lives. 

Medically, not being able to get back to sleep at night is known as sleep-maintenance insomnia. And for those who suffer from it, even investing in the best pillow or spritzing the most calming sleep mist can still fail to have them dozing back off. 

“Sleep-maintenance insomnia is essentially when you have difficulty staying asleep,” says Dr Anita Shelgikar, a neurologist at the Michigan Medicine Sleep Disorders Clinic. “Depending on the underlying cause, insomnia may develop suddenly or it may happen over several weeks, months or years.”

Causes of disturbed sleep vary, but experts believe that stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol, stress, and medication side effects, can all impact the quality of your sleep and can cause sleep-maintenance insomnia.

How to get back to sleep in the middle of the night

The good news is, having a strategy in place can give you a better chance of drifting off when you wake up in the middle of the night. Here are five simple expert-approved tricks for getting back to sleep.

1. Use the 20-minute rule

Willing yourself to go back to sleep isn’t an effective way of putting your body into rest mode. If your eyes are open for any longer than 20 minutes, it’s time to take action. “If you can’t get back to sleep, then leave the sleeping zone,” 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 to your bed and restart your sleep ritual. Perhaps that means getting into your go-to sleeping position or using a pillow spray, whatever it is, start your bedtime routine again.” 

You could also try some bedtime yoga or listen to sleep-guided meditations to encourage your body and mind to enter relaxation mode and prepare for sleep. 

2. Distract yourself 

When it's 2am and you're lying in bed wondering how to get back to sleep, it can be very tempting to keep checking your clock, but try to avoid watching the minutes tick by. “As tempting as it is to look at the clock or your phone, it’s best not to,” says Margo. “Not only can it make you feel anxious about missing out on sleep, but blue light exposure suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin. Instead, try listening to an audiobook, or do some meditation or visualization.” 

A study by the University of Oxford found that people who used imagery distraction (visualizing 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.”

3. Grab a notepad

Stress and anxiety are key driving factors behind poor sleep, and research by the Eastern Michigan University shows that writing can help organize thoughts and empty the mind of worries at the end of the day. “If anxious thoughts or nightmares 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,” says Margo. “That way you can reflect on and review them the next day.”

Alternatively, you could write down five things you are grateful for in the moments you're wondering how to get back to sleep. They can be anything from wearing your favorite cozy pajamas to having a warm, safe place to rest your head. 

4. Tweak your environment

A noisy bedfellow or a light outside can wreak havoc on your sleep, so try tweaking your environment to help you sleep better

“Make sure that your curtains and blinds are closed and wear an eye mask,” says Margo. “Your body loves absolute darkness when going to sleep, and maybe you’re waking up because of light or noise disturbance. Make sure that lamps from the street aren’t shining in from outside and invest in some earplugs that will help reduce the surrounding noise in your environment.” 

A pair of earplugs can be a real blessing when you're wondering how to get back to sleep with a snorting partner beside you! 

5. Lower the room temperature 

We all know that hot weather and heat waves can make it very difficult to nod off at night. If you wake up feeling hot and don't know how to get back to sleep, it's time to lower the room temperature and make your environment more sleep-friendly! 

“About 68°F is the ideal temperature,” says Margo. “Your body needs to stay cool. 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.”

How do I stop waking up during the night? 

As well as trying these tricks when you wake up in the night and don't know how to get back to sleep, there are steps you can take before bed to prevent you from waking up by encouraging your body to relax. This will make it easier to transition through healthy sleep cycles. 

1. Practise deep breathing  

From balancing the pressure of children and work to looking after elderly parents, our lives are often fraught with stress. An effective way of managing it is breathwork. “The 4-7-8 breathing is a great technique,” says Dr Lindsay Browning, author of Navigating Sleeplessness: How to Sleep Deeper and Better For Longer. “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. Think about what you drink 

“We often use coffee to wake us up and a glass of wine in the evening to help us feel relaxed, but if you can, avoid the whole stimulant, sedative cycle,” says Margo. “Eliminate caffeine by lunchtime as a rough guide. Too much alcohol prevents you from reaching the deeper stages of sleep and makes you feel groggy in the morning. The odd nightcap is fine, but multiply it and then it becomes a problem.” Instead, practice good sleep hygiene by avoiding caffeine and enjoying a sleep tea for your hot drink fix.

3. Focus on daily movement 

“Regular exercise makes it easier to fall and stay asleep,” says Dr Shelgikar. “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, as 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. 

When to speak to your doctor about your sleep problems

If you're worried about your sleep cycle, Margo suggests keeping a sleep diary or using sleep apps to track your cycle and see if there is a pattern with your disturbed sleep. “However, if your sleep problems have been going on for six to eight weeks, then it’s time to consult your doctor,” Margo adds.

Stacey Carter

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.