Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you are probably waking up overnight. But waking up during the course of a night of sleep can be a natural and normal phenomenon — and it doesn’t mean your body missed the memo on sleep.
“Quality sleep shouldn’t be measured in terms of continuous sedation,” says Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist and sleep specialist in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Sleep advisor to Sleep.com.
In other words, it’s common to wake up, at least briefly, while you’re sleeping — the real measurement for quality sleep has to do with how you feel when you wake up in the morning.
Sleep disruptors, like a nighttime bathroom visit or environmental causes like noises and light, can cause you to wake up, but with a little focus, falling back asleep can be a breeze. If you’re able to fall right back to sleep after awakenings and still feel refreshed in the morning, tackling those nocturnal awakenings doesn’t have to go on your to-do list.
When is it “normal” to wake up at night?
Nighttime awakenings can range from micro-arousals that you’re unaware of — these are brief awakenings of the brain’s cerebral cortex, as measured on an EEG (electroencephalogram) — to actual awakenings that do register in your consciousness and behavior. It’s easy to fully wake up during stage 1 of sleep, which is the lightest, but micro-arousals, which you don’t even notice, often occur during stage 2 of sleep, one of the lighter stages of slumber.
Waking up from other sleep disruptors, like pain and sleep apnea, can be harder to recover from. Couple that with insomnia and you may start experiencing middle-of-the-night insomnia. It’s that version of nighttime awakenings that impact your sleep quality.
A 2010 study found that among 8,937 people, ages 18 and older, 36% reported waking up during the night at least three times per week. Of the people who woke up, 43% of them reported difficulty resuming sleep and were found more likely to experience shorter and worse sleep as well as daytime sleepiness and a need for sleep medication.
There aren’t reliable figures regarding the average number of nighttime awakenings for adults but Winter says it’s probably around two to three. Older adults also tend to have more nocturnal awakenings, most likely because they spend less time in the deeper stages of sleep and more time in the lighter stages.
Interestingly, research has also found that women are more likely to have a difficult time getting back to sleep after awakening during the night than men, but the reasons for this aren’t understood.
What’s the normal number of nocturnal wake ups for kids and infants?
Babies are expected to wake up during the night because they’re more reactive to shifts in their brain waves as they move from one stage of sleep to another. By the age of six months, babies’ brain waves have started to mature; this means that most babies should be able to sleep for at least six to ten hours during the night, from a physiological perspective, and they shouldn’t require a nighttime feeding.
That said, kids of all ages have brief arousals from sleep four to six times per night. For kids who fully awaken, the key is to learn how to self-regulate and soothe themselves back to sleep.
Middle-of-the-night dos and don’ts
In instances where you have trouble returning to the Land of Nod, you might need a little help. Addressing your middle-of-the-night awakenings earlier can help decrease performance anxieties around sleep.
1. Don’t panic
What should you do if you wake up in the middle of the night? First of all, focus on staying calm.
“People put way too much worry and concern into what happens if they wake up during the night,” says Winter. This can create a self-perpetuating problem, where feeling stressed out about getting back to sleep can make it that much harder to fall back to sleep, and lead to chronic insomnia.
2. Get out of bed if you feel frustrated or awake
The general sleep rule is to get out of bed within 15 to 20 minutes of waking up, if you can’t go back to sleep. The idea is to get out of bed and go to another room to do a relaxing activity, such as reading a not-too-stimulating book or listening to soft music, in the dimmest light possible. Then, return to bed only when you feel drowsy again.
The reasoning: This way you won’t start to associate your bed with not sleeping.
But you don’t have to stick to the time limit. Don’t be afraid to trust your body. “If you feel frustrated about not being able to fall back to sleep, get out of bed after any amount of time,” Winter recommends.
3. Get relaxed in bed
If you don’t mind lying in bed, relaxing, and letting your mind wander, there’s nothing wrong with that. Simply lying in bed and letting your mind wander while you’re awake, by thinking about places or activities that bring you joy or a sense of calm, can help. “We need to value rest,” Winter says.
Engaging in a relaxing activity, such as a mindfulness meditation, which can help with chronic insomnia, will also help lull your mind to sleep. Alternatively, put sound on your side: Research has found that listening to gentle music can enhance sleep quality.
4. Avoid blue light
If you do get out of bed because you’re struggling to get back to sleep, avoid exposing yourself to bright lights during the night. That means: Don’t check your smartphone or e-mail on a computer. Research shows that exposure to blue light, in particular, suppresses the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy.
5. Avoid snacks and drinks
And don’t drink alcohol or have milk and cookies in an attempt to make yourself drowsy, Winter says, because “you’ll set yourself up to expect food or beverages in the middle of the night. Your body will become conditioned to that.” If you routinely wake up hungry during the night, consider having a light bedtime snack before turning in.
You’ll also want to avoid drinking water — or if you do, try to have only small sips — to avoid waking up again for a nighttime bathroom visit.
Nighttime awakening tips for kids
Develop a bedtime routine for kids that includes putting on PJs, brushing teeth, reading books, cuddling, then turning out the lights — and stick with it. Maintaining a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine helps kids feel comfortable and secure because they know what’s going to happen. “Work on making their bedroom environment a place they want to be — don’t use a bedroom for punishment,” Winter advises.
If your child wakes up during the night, take them back to bed and reassure them if they had a bad dream or are feeling anxious. Don’t make a big deal out of it. “It’s really about helping them develop confidence in terms of putting themselves back to sleep,” says Winter.
Tips for staying asleep
Make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep — as in: calm, quiet, cool, and dark. To block out light that comes in through windows, use room-darkening shades or heavy, lined curtains; if that doesn’t help enough, consider wearing an eye mask.
When to talk to a doctor
Remember: Waking up during the night doesn’t have to be a source of stress or worry. It happens to everyone, and if you're waking up in the morning feeling refreshed, waking up may not be a problem.
But if nighttime awakenings start keeping you up at night or you have difficulty going back to sleep on a regular basis, or you frequently wake up in the morning feeling tired, talk to your doctor. Depending on your condition, they’ll be able to help put together a treatment plan for what’s causing your sleep disruptions and nighttime awakenings.