13 Reasons Why You May Wake Up In The Middle Of The Night - And How To Get Back To Sleep

We all have those bad nights of sleep. You know what we mean — you're exhausted, but for some reason, you wake up every hour. Eventually, you just give up, get out of bed in the middle of the night, and resign yourself to an impending day of exhaustion. We can all deal with this happening once in a while, and sometimes bouts of sleeplessness hit for seemingly no reason. However, if you experience this on a regular basis, there could be an underlying cause that probably shouldn't be ignored. 

We're going to cover a number of common causes of sleeplessness in this article, but if none of them seem to apply, you may have a sleep disorder like insomnia, narcolepsy, or sleep apnea. To determine whether you have a sleep disorder or not, you'll want to consult a sleep specialist, who will be able to conduct sleep tests and figure out if the underlying cause of your sleeplessness is due to more than just drinking caffeine past 3 p.m. Sleep tests can gather a variety of data to nail down the cause of your particular sleeping problems, including data on your heart rate, brain waves, and breathing patterns.

Don't rush to the sleep specialists just yet, though — there are lots of other less serious, more solvable possible causes of your sleep disturbances. Let's chat about what some of them are and how to fix them, and hopefully, you'll start getting regular nights of good sleep from now on. 

Eating too close to bedtime

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but friend, you probably want to quit that nighttime snacking-before-bed habit. That's right — your midnight snacks, while satisfying in the moment, are ultimately sabotaging your efforts to get a good night's sleep. That's partially because eating late throws off your circadian rhythm, which helps regulate your body's cycles of sleeping and waking.

As a general rule, experts recommend eating your last bites of food for the day about three hours before you go to bed. This gives your body an adequate amount of time to start digesting before bedtime so you can get the best rest possible. If you do have to eat later at night, though, the type of food you choose (and how much of it you have) can really make or break that night's sleep. You'll want to stay away from foods that are processed or high in sugar content and go for vegetables instead. If that doesn't sound appetizing, have a small protein- or fat-rich snack, like some yogurt or nuts.

Drinking caffeine too late in the day

Don't worry, we're not by any means telling you to quit your caffeine addiction. A cup o' joe, while great as a morning wake-up call, can quickly become detrimental when you have too much of it — especially when it comes to your sleep. That means if you're a habitual late-afternoon coffee drinker who tends to have restless nights, the two are probably more connected than you want to admit. 

So how late in the day can you have that second cup without worrying about suffering yet another sleepless night? A study published in the "Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine" aimed to answer just that. They gave caffeine to subjects zero, three, and six hours before bedtime and then monitored the participants' sleep quality. They found that all the participants experienced sleep disruption, even those who had caffeine six full hours before bedtime. This means if your bedtime is 10 p.m, you'll want to be done with your last cup of coffee by 4 p.m. at the latest. Keep in mind that caffeine isn't only in coffee, though! If you habitually eat dark chocolate or drink tea in the evening, know that these can contain caffeine as well. 

Drinking alcohol excessively

Alcohol, despite having depressive effects on your nervous system, can actually be pretty disruptive to your sleep — especially when consumed in excess. This might come as a surprise if you've gone out for a night on the town only to return home and immediately fall asleep. Yes, alcohol can put you to bed pretty quickly, but that sleep is probably going to be pretty disruptive, and you likely won't feel rested the day after drinking. 

All this means if you use alcohol as a sleep aid, don't! It might help you fall asleep, but your quality of sleep is going to be greatly reduced. This is the case even if you only have a small amount of alcohol before bedtime. Why? According to the Sleep Foundation, alcohol gets metabolized by the liver, but that process doesn't happen instantaneously. When you drink in the evening, your liver will spend the night metabolizing the alcohol, and until it's metabolized, it just circulates throughout your body, disrupting your sleep along the way. When you do drink, drink in moderation, and try not to drink too close to bedtime — especially if you have a busy day the next day.

Consuming sugar too close to bedtime

We get it, sometimes knowing that you have dessert in the freezer is what motivates you to conquer the rest of your day. Luckily, we're not telling you to give up your dessert! Dessert is a delectable, delightful, and dare we say necessary part of a well-rounded life — but when consumed in excess, or too close to bedtime, it can have pretty devastating effects on your sleep quality. 

We all know about the "sugar high" kids get after eating too many sweets. It makes sense that the effect sugar has on our bodies would be mitigated as we get older, but don't let that fool you into thinking you're immune to it. In fact, a study published in the "American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine" aimed to nail down once and for all the effect that sugar has on our sleep quality. It found a "significant association" between decreased sleep quality and sugar consumption before bedtime. In fact, of the participants they studied who consumed sugar before bed, only 17% of them experienced a good night's sleep. Keep that in mind the next time you reach for that pre-bedtime bowl of ice cream, and if nothing else, this may be a good excuse to actually have dessert before dinner for once.

Having bad dreams or nightmares

Ever been woken up by a nightmare? Or maybe you have a disturbing recurring dream that plagues you night after night. Nightmares can strike at any time without warning, and they have a variety of possible triggers — for example, maybe you watched a scary movie right before bed, or you're going through a stressful situation at work, or your dreams have just been bringing your worst fears to the surface.

Nightmares are relatively common in children but tend to decrease in frequency as we get older. You'll still probably experience nightmares every once in a while as an adult, but they shouldn't happen too frequently, and they shouldn't be disturbing enough to affect your daily life. If you're experiencing significant distress from your nightmares, Mayo Clinic suggests you may have nightmare disorder. Nightmare disorder is primarily characterized by frequent, persistent nightmares that cause major distress, like fear of falling asleep, sleepiness throughout the day, and anxiety about the content of your nightmares. If this sounds like something you're experiencing, consult a doctor for professional help.

If your nightmares are less severe, though, you can take steps to help stop them. Start by staying away from any potentially triggering material before bedtime and stay away from substances that could disrupt your sleep, like sugar.

Stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety do a number on your entire body, and your sleep quality is no exception. If you've ever been sleepless the night before a big presentation, a highly anticipated first date, or a big trip, you know what we mean. Sometimes your brain is just too busy to let you fall asleep. To make matters worse, if you experience this frequently, you could even develop sleep anxiety, which is anxiety around your ability to fall and stay asleep. It's a vicious cycle that we doubt you want to get caught in. 

If stress and anxiety are keeping you up at night, you're far from alone — in fact, the American Psychological Association has reported that 43% of American adults have experienced stress-related sleeplessness in the past month. Moreover, the APA has also found that less sleep leads to an increase in stress. If you're caught in this cycle, you're probably wondering what to do about it. Decreasing your stress levels to get better sleep is easier said than done, but there are a few practical starting steps you can take to calm your body down before bed. Melatonin is a great natural sleep supplement, as is a cup of chamomile tea before bed. You could try taking a soothing bath or doing some sleep yoga before bed as well, and getting all your thoughts down in a journal before bedtime could be a helpful practice, too. 

Your environment is too noisy

We're looking at you, city slickers and apartment dwellers. We know you love the hustle and bustle of city life, but the constant on-the-go-ness of urban environments might be disrupting your sleep, with anything from loud sirens to inebriated bar patrons waking you up mid-snooze. It's annoying at best, and seriously disruptive to your life at worst. But what are you supposed to do about noise, and are those nighttime disturbances really that bad for you?

Hoffman Audiology says that, yes, too much noise in and around your sleep environment can have pretty detrimental qualities on your overall health. When experienced infrequently, noisy nights will probably just make you sleepy the next day; if the disturbances are regular, though, you could end up dealing with a number of different symptoms ranging anywhere from high blood pressure and weight gain to even type 2 diabetes. 

Not sure how to mitigate the constant flow of noise at night? You could try a variety of things, like wearing earplugs at night, investing in a white noise machine, or insulating your exterior windows to muffle sounds. 

You have poor sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene is basically self-care geared toward your sleep routine. It isn't just about whether you're sleeping on clean sheets or not — it consists of all your bedtime rituals, habits, and overall sleeping environment. Having good sleep hygiene will ideally help you unwind at the end of busy days so that you are able to fall asleep easily and stay asleep throughout the night. If you're someone who can't sleep in a messy room or needs to shower every night before bed, you're already implementing good sleep hygiene practices into your life. 

Poor sleep hygiene, however, could lead to nighttime restlessness and a lower quality of sleep. Have you ever fallen asleep easier in a nice, clean hotel room than in your own at home? It could be because you have clothes strewn all over the floor, chargers constantly flashing during the night, and you fall asleep with the TV on. Even if you don't notice these stimuli while you're snoozing, your body is well aware of all of them. So before you go to bed tonight, try implementing some good sleep hygiene practices and see if it helps. The CDC recommends you start by making your room a peaceful sleeping environment — clean, dark, and noise-free. Make sure your bed is made, the sheets are clean, and electronics are off. If you want to go the extra mile, get ample exercise during the day and keep your room at a comfortable sleeping temperature.

You have to go to the bathroom

Midnight bathroom trips are such a ritual for some that you may not even think twice about it. Your internal alarm clock (aka your bladder) goes off at 2:30 a.m. like it's in charge, and you blindly follow it to the bathroom to relieve your discomfort before collapsing back into your peaceful snooze. But what if we told you that you didn't have to be a slave to your bladder — that it's possible to actually make it through a whole sleep without getting up to use the bathroom even once?

If you don't believe us, we're (hopefully) about to prove you wrong. According to Geisinger, there are several possible causes behind your nighttime bathroom breaks, and most of them are solvable. First and perhaps most obviously, you could just be drinking too much water, caffeine, alcohol, or even tea before bedtime. You could also be having too much salt throughout the day, which causes your body to retain water and could lead you to wake up in the middle of the night to "go." Certain medications and age can also be factors. If none of these seem to apply to you, there could be an underlying cause that your nighttime urination is alerting you to, like a UTI, diabetes, bladder tumors, or an enlarged prostate. If you're getting up multiple times a night to go to the bathroom and no habit changes help, we recommend consulting a doctor. 

Your kids or spouse wake you up

Being woken up by kids at night is part of being a parent. It comes with the territory and should subside as they grow older and more independent. If you're married, you probably get woken up by your spouse on occasion too, whether it's because they snore, move around, or talk in their sleep. You deserve a good night's rest, though, and even though getting one can be hard with kids and spouses in the picture, it's definitely not impossible.

Again, especially with newborns, sleepless nights are part of the game. This is because babies haven't yet developed strong circadian rhythms — in other words, their body isn't super-tuned into normal waking/sleeping patterns. This is something you'll have to contend with right after having a baby; if your child is older and still waking you up at night regularly, though, there are things you can do to help. Firstly, find out the root cause of their sleeplessness. Are they having nightmares? Are they afraid of the dark? Do they have nighttime separation anxiety? Once you know the cause, finding a solution that works for you and your family will be more manageable.

If you're frequently woken by your spouse at night and it's disrupting your daily life, you could bring up a sleep divorce. It's less dramatic than it sounds and just entails sleeping in separate beds, which could be just what you need. 

You have sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is incredibly difficult to self-diagnose, but very important to get to the bottom of. Sufferers of sleep apnea will often feel tired and groggy even after getting a full night's sleep, and aren't aware they're actually waking up multiple times a night because they stop breathing. 

According to Piedmont, sleep apnea occurs when an individual's airway narrows during the night and prevents oxygen from getting in. This causes your body to panic, wake up momentarily, and start breathing again. Eventually, the airway narrows again, breathing stops, you wake up for a few seconds, and the cycle continues. All. Night. Long. Sounds exhausting, right? Well, it is. Fortunately, this problem has a solution to match. To get diagnosed with sleep apnea, you'll have to undergo a sleep test, which will monitor your nighttime breathing patterns to determine whether apnea is the cause of your fatigue. If it is, you'll likely be fitted with a CPAP mask and machine, which pushes air into your nostrils at night to promote steady breathing rhythms.

You're going to bed too early

What's the first thing you want to do after a sleepless night? Sleep, probably. You've been there — a restless night is followed by a full day at work, and by the time you get home, it's all you can do to not crawl into bed right away. In fact, you do crawl into bed right away for a little nap. Actually, it turns into a long nap, and before you know it you're waking up at 9 p.m. to get ready to go to bed in an hour. But since you already slept, you're faced with another sleepless night, and the cycle continues.

How do you break this cycle? Well, the important thing is to not try to compensate for sleepless nights by napping or going to bed early the next day, as this could just throw off your body's circadian rhythm more. Being irregular in your sleep cycles will actually make your sleep consistently worse. We know it's not fun, but make yourself stay up until your normal bedtime — if you really can't, try to go to sleep no more than about 30 minutes before you normally would. 

Your sleep schedule is inconsistent

As you already know by now, your body's circadian rhythm is the primary determining factor of when you fall asleep and wake up on a daily basis. But your circadian rhythm can be tampered with — and too much tampering can cause nighttime restlessness, waking, and fatigue during the day. Want to know if you've been "tampering" with your circadian rhythm? Take a mental note of when you've fallen asleep and woken up each night this week. If the times vary wildly, that's a sign that your body's circadian rhythm may need a reset. 

To start, try falling asleep and waking up at the same time every day – yes, even on weekends — and stay away from habits like catching up on sleep when you have a day off. In fact, NIH Medline Plus Magazine reports that trying to catch up on sleep on the weekends (also called "weekend recovery sleep") causes your sleep to be even more disturbed the following week. Getting less sleep than the advised amount of 7-9 hours per night also has detrimental effects, while keeping the same sleep and wake patterns throughout your week will greatly help regulate your body's circadian rhythm. If you're traveling to a different time zone or taking a redeye flight, your sleep pattern will be out of whack — stay up until it's time to go to bed (following whatever time zone you're in) and it should normalize in a day or two. 

How to fall back asleep when you do wake up

Even if you're doing everything right — your sleep hygiene is top-notch, you cut the caffeine and sugar before bed, and your sleep schedule is as regular as they come — you'll still probably experience a sleepless night every once in a while. It's to be expected, but it's still super annoying. If you don't have a few fall-back-asleep methods in your back pocket, you might find yourself staring at a dark ceiling for hours, so here are a few things to try when you do wake up at night.

If your mind is busy when you wake up, try clearing it by meditating, or even pulling out a soothing mindfulness app like Headspace. Don't look at the clock when you wake up, as this could create anxiety, which can further prevent you from falling back asleep. If your body feels restless, you can try to relax it by tensing the different muscles in your body for about five seconds at a time before slowly releasing them. If all else fails and you really can't fall back asleep, it may just be time to get up, start your day early, and try again the next night — hopefully, you'll get better sleep then!