Sleepless in Arkansas, Part 11: “How to Go Back to Sleep When You Wake Up at Night”

[This is a Guest Post written by Dr. Michael Breus.]

How To Go Back To Sleep When You Wake Up At Night

How to go back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night was one of the most requested topics from last week’s survey, so I thought I’d address the subject ASAP.

Waking up in the middle of the night is a common and frustrating problem that affects every person at some point in their lives. You may not know this, but the most prevalent form of insomnia is called sleep maintenance insomnia, and it can cause multiple nighttime awakenings, so having a strategy for this situation can be helpful before it gets to be a full-blown sleep disorder.

Many sleep disruptions can be caused by either internal (e.g., biological) or external (environmental) factors. Whatever the case may be, lying awake at night will leave you exhausted the next day, so here are my tips to help you get back to sleep.

Internal Factors:

Don’t Go to the Bathroom, Unless You Need to!

When someone wakes up in the middle of the night and has to go to the bathroom, they often think, “Well, since I’m up, I might as well.” My advice is to stay in bed unless you really need to go. When you’re sleeping, your heart rate is slow and very relaxed. It will remain that way, even if you’re awake, but when you sit up, and then get out of bed, your heart rate will quicken and your autonomic nervous system will become more active, which is NOT conducive to sleep. What does that mean? When you stand your heart rate goes above 60, and you need a heart rate of 60 or less to go to sleep.

Stop Fluids an Hour and a Half Before Bed 

If your sleep is often interrupted by your bladder, stop drinking fluids an hour and a half before bed. If you have any medical conditions, check with your personal physician first. And if you are diabetic, this is not a good idea. Also, make sure you try to go to the bathroom each evening before bed.

Use the 4-7-8 Breathing Method 

If you get out of bed for any reason, you will want to get your heart rate back down to its sleeping rate of 60 beats or less per minute. The 4-7-8 Breathing Method can help here. Inhale deeply for 4 seconds. Hold your breath for 7 seconds and then exhale for 8 seconds. Repeat this process for 5-7 cycles, focusing on relaxation and calming down. Clear Your Mind 

“My brain is so active at night” is something that I often hear. If you suffer from an overactive mind, here’s a trick. Count backward from 300 by 3’s. The task is complicated enough that it will keep your mind occupied, and it is so doggone boring, you won’t be able to think about anything stressful.

Be Positive

This one is specifically to be paired with “clock watching” below. Most people when they look at the clock instantly do the mental math and realize how much sleep they have left in the middle of the night. I suggest you put a positive spin on that, and when you do look (which you probably will), say to yourself “Awesome, I get X number more hours to get some great sleep,” and then use one of the techniques I provide for you here. There is data to show, not only will you fall asleep a bit quicker, but you may have more positive dreams!

External Factors:

Install Nightlights Between the Bedroom and the Bathroom

My advice is to install nightlights to help guide you to the bathroom. When you turn on a light, your body will stop producing melatonin. Nightlights provide enough illumination to get you safely to the bathroom without waking you further.

Put Your Phone Away 

Leave your phone in a different room at night. Your phone emits blue light which disrupts circadian rhythms and inhibits melatonin production. Also, your phone is a potential source of stress. You might inadvertently read a disturbing headline or maybe see a text about a difficult situation at work. When you’re stressed, you will have more trouble getting back to sleep. Also, trying to get your new high score on Candy Crush is not exactly conducive to better rest. However, if you MUST use your phone or any device with blue light, consider blue light blocking glasses.

Don’t Watch the Clock 

Keep your eyes off your alarm clock in the middle of the night. Panicking about the sleep you’re missing is not going to help you sleep. Focus on relaxation. Stay positive. I promise it really works.

What to Do if You’re Waking Up Too Early

If you’re waking up an hour or two before your alarm, try going to bed later. If you normally turn in at 10, try 11 instead. You can shift your whole sleep routine by postponing your bedtime by an hour. That said, you might have trouble staying awake until your new bedtime. I recommend making a list of engaging things that you can do: cleaning, walking the dog, balancing your checkbook, arranging your day planner, etc. Avoid passive activities like watching movies or listening to music.

  • Avoid stimulants like nicotine and caffeine (which can be found in more than just coffee and soda) later in the day.
  • Stop drinking alcohol three hours before bedtime or don’t drink any.
  • Ensure that your bedroom remains quiet, cool and dark throughout the night.
  • If this problem persists for over a month, see a sleep specialist (check out to find an accredited center near you). .

When All Else Fails, Get Up and Do Something That’s Relaxing and Non-Stimulating

If you’ve been lying in bed for about a half hour unable to sleep, consider getting out of bed, especially if you’re feeling angry and frustrated. Negative emotions only make it harder to sleep. Getting out of bed will help you reestablish the association of sleep with the bedroom. Make a list of unstimulating activities that you can do during the night. You can read, pray, listen to relaxing music or meditate. Once you feel sufficiently drowsy, return to your bed and try to sleep again. Don’t go to your computer, phone or day planner or engage in any activities that will make you more alert.

Many people find that my Sleep Doctor PM Middle of the Night Formula is very effective (It doesn’t contain melatonin so you won’t wake up groggy and has just the right amount of sleep-promoting herbs to get you back to sleep.) for helping people get back to sleep when other methods aren’t working. Just a few quick sprays under your tongue may help you fall gently and restfully back to sleep and stay asleep until it is time to wake up.

As frustrating as waking up in the middle of the night can be, with a little observation and practice most people find they are able to become better at going back to sleep after they’ve woken up, using these techniques and products.

If you wake up at night and have a hard time falling asleep, hit reply and let me know what you do that helps you go back to sleep. Do you have a method you want to share with others? I want to hear about it!!!

Sweet Dreams,
Dr. Michael Breus

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