As many Australians know, falling asleep is just part of the sleep challenge. Staying asleep is how we achieve the sustained rest that is so important to long-term health and wellbeing. Restless, interrupted sleep can lead to daytime tiredness and fatigue, diminishes cognitive performance and affects mood1.
None of us are perfect sleepers, and it’s common for most of us to wake at some point during the night. In the course of a night’s sleep, you may sometimes get up to use the bathroom, or wake briefly before returning to sleep, sometimes before even opening your eyes. However, frequent and prolonged awakenings during the night can interfere with both sleep quality and sleep quantity, and reduce overall sleep efficiency.
There are different types of nighttime awakenings that interfere with sleep. Understanding the possible causes can help you make adjustments to improve your rest.
Establish what’s waking you
Waking frequently throughout the night happens to many people. These awakenings may not last long, but they interrupt continuous, restful sleep and can result in daytime fatigue.
Sometimes frequent awakenings are caused by disruptions from within your sleep environment. Sudden, unexpected, and unfamiliar noises can easily rouse you from sleep. These noises don’t necessarily need to be loud to be disruptive. Too much light in your bedroom is another frequent cause of middle-of-the-night awakenings. A television left on, streetlights shining through an uncovered window, even a too-bright alarm clock can disturb your sleep. Stress is another cause of frequent middle-of-the-night awakenings.
Consuming too much caffeine during the day can also impede consistent sleep at night, as can a too-heavy consumption of alcohol. Limit caffeine consumption to the morning, and curtail drinking alcohol within four hours of bedtime to avoid restless sleep.
A fragmented night’s sleep
These frequent awakenings can lead to what sleep experts refer to as ‘fragmented sleep’2. When sleep is fragmented, you can’t proceed normally through sleep cycles. Fragmented sleep results in less time spent in deep sleep and REM sleep, the most physically and mentally restorative stages of sleep. People whose sleep is fragmented spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep, where you’re more likely to be disturbed and awakened. To avoid frequent awakenings, it’s important to tend to your sleep environment to resolve possible disruptions. This could include having your sleep therapy devices inspected and serviced if they are making noises that disturb you. Book a time with us if you'd like to organise a complete clean and check of your equipment.
If you do find yourself waking briefly during the night, stay in bed. If possible, don’t even open your eyes. Relax and let sleep come over you again.
Long nights spent awake
Night-time awakenings can also be prolonged experiences for many people. These extended periods of sleeplessness in the middle of the night or very early morning can be frustrating and anxiety inducing, which only make it harder to return to sleep. Being awake for extended periods of time during the night can significantly diminish sleep duration, leading to daytime tiredness and ongoing sleep deprivation. Stress is a common cause of prolonged middle-of-night wakefulness3. Once awake, worrisome thoughts flood the mind and soon it may feel impossible to return to sleep. Simple relaxation and thought-blocking exercises can help calm and clear the mind for a return to sleep. Replace worried thoughts with images of a favorite, relaxing place. Let your mind imagine all the sights, smells, and sounds of a peaceful spot by a lake, or a quiet summer night under the stars.
Alternatively, you can take any pressure you feel to fall asleep quickly and turn it on its head. This technique, known as paradoxical intention, involves putting your attention on trying to stay awake4. Tell yourself rather than needing to sleep you must stay awake. Focus on keeping your eyes open. Reversing your thought patterns can help break the escalating cycle of night-time worry, and ease you more quickly back to sleep.
Don’t force sleep
At a certain point you may find sleep simply won’t return. At that point, it might be best to get out of bed rather than toss and turn in frustration. Engage in a quiet, soothing activity such as meditation or reading under low light until you feel tired. If you’ve lost sleep during the night to repeated or extended awakenings, resist the temptation to sleep in the next morning. Get up, go about your day, and you might be more prepared for a consistently restful night’s sleep when bedtime arrives the following night.
If nighttime waking is a constant problem for you and none of the above treatments work, you may be suffering from undiagnosed sleep apnea. To see if you are at risk at risk take our online sleep sleep assessment. It only takes two minutes:
- Ten Tips For a Good Night’s Sleep. Sleep Health Foundation: http://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/component/content/article.html?id=225:tips-for-a-good-night-sleep
- Stress and Sleep Disorder. Kuem Sun Han, Lin Kim, and Insop Shim: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538178/
- 4. Paradoxical Intention for Insomnia. American Psychological Association: https://www.div12.org/psychological-treatments/treatments/paradoxical-intention-for-insomnia/