Surprising Reasons You’re Not Staying Asleep

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation


Learn what’s causing those middle-of-the-night wakeups so you can finally get the sleep you need.

A 3:00am awakening now and again is nothing to be concerned about. But if you wake up in the middle of the night at least three times a week, and it’s been going on for at least three months, you may have what’s called sleep maintenance insomnia (a.k.a. the inability to stay asleep). With around 40 million Americans suffering from some type of insomnia—most of them women—you’ve got plenty of company. Luckily, there are steps you can take to get sounder sleep.

Why Does It Happen?

There are a host of reasons why you might wake up during the night and not be able to get back to sleep. To start, as the night wears on, your body naturally moves into lighter stages of slumber, during which it's easier to be roused. That’s why wakeups are more likely to happen in the early morning hours.

Poor sleep hygiene can also play a role. Drinking caffeine in the afternoon or evening can prevent you from sleeping deeply. And having an alcoholic nightcap may make you fall asleep quickly, but often causes wake-ups later on in the night as your body metabolizes the alcohol. A less-than-ideal sleep environment—for example: a room that’s not dark enough, too noisy, or too warm—can result in fitful sleep, too.

Various underlying conditions might also be to blame. People with sleep apnea, who experience pauses in breathing or shallow breaths as they sleep, often wake up countless times during the night. An enlarged prostate can cause men to wake up frequently to go to the bathroom. Restless leg syndrome, and the jumpiness associated with it, can jolt you awake, and chronic stress or anxiety can cause you to awaken frequently, too. And heartburn or a chronic cough associated with gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD) can cause you to wake suddenly through the night. These are all serious conditions, so if you suspect that you might have one of them, speak to your doctor right away.

What You Can Do

Start by sticking to a consistent sleep schedule—aim for roughly the same bedtime and wake-up time each day. Be sure to get in 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week, since moving your body can help you sleep better in the evening.

If you do wake up in the middle of the night, resist the urge to grab your smartphone or tablet; these devices emit blue light, which can over-stimulate you and hinder your body’s ability to fall back to sleep. Turn your alarm clock toward the wall if you find yourself watching the minutes tick by. Instead, try deep breathing, a simple meditation, or other relaxation techniques to lull yourself back to a state of calm. If, after twenty minutes, you still can’t fall back to sleep, get out of bed for a bit to read a book or magazine or listen to some soothing music.