Help me stay asleep!
September 16, 2013 3:56 AM   Subscribe

What can I do to fall back asleep when I wake up in the middle of the night?

I am usually a fairly light sleeper, but have never had any real troubles. This past couple weeks, I have been waking up around 3:30 or 4am and staying awake til 6am several nights a week, and then I have to be up at 7am. I'm currently awake and have been up since around 4am.

I fall asleep in seconds, and sleep great til this happens. I usually get up to pee and then just stay up. The first time it happened I was very frustrated about it, but the next couple times (including tonight) I'm not especially stressed about it but I still can't get back to sleep. I laid awake in bed for an hour or so, got up, had a snack, tried to sleep more, got up, read a magazine, went back to bed, got up, etc ...

I do take melatonin pretty frequently, but it doesn't keep me asleep. I exercise a few times a week. I eat well, and I'm not really unduly stressed about anything, although this is annoying because I work full-time and am a part-time student (I have a 14-hour day ahead of me). I'm also starting to get very bored because there's not much I can do at night besides get on a computer (bad for falling back asleep) or read old magazines (boring) since I live with my boyfriend in a tiny studio apartment.

I sleep with an eye mask and we leave a fan on for white noise, but we live on a noisy NYC street and I hear a lot of cars go by at night. Usually they wake me up but I fall right back asleep.

What can I do to stay asleep? I happen to be going to the doctor for a check-up in a week but I'd prefer to sleep before then, plus I don't want to take any medication if I don't have to.

posted by queens86 to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, I forgot to mention - I sleep fine during the weekends, this is just during the week really.
posted by queens86 at 3:57 AM on September 16, 2013

As you get older, you may be slipping into what's called segmented sleep, which is actually fairly common, and not necessarily unhealthy. For a wealth of info, Google it.
posted by dinger at 4:11 AM on September 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I work over-nights and often wake up during the day because of noise or excessive sunlight. Here are my techniques for getting back to sleep:

1st: Take two sominex or benedryl immediately upon waking up. It takes about an hour for it to kick in.
2nd: Exercise for about 30 minutes, even if it's just playing a kinect game, or taking a walk around the block.
3rd: Get in bed, put on music or a podcast or an audiobook. My go-to's for falling asleep recently are the history of philosophy podcast or Welcome to nightvale -- if you use the podcast app on your iphone, you can set it to turn off after 30 minutes, or whichever time you like. If my GF is sleeping next to me, I'll sometimes sleep on my side and put one ear bud in, kind of loosely. But to be honest, if i put the phone right by my head on a low volume, it's loud enough for me to hear without waking her up, though.

It also helps to take some benedryl before you go to bed the first time, which should stop you from getting out of bed 4 hours later, and going to the bathroom before you go to bed in the first place.
posted by empath at 4:14 AM on September 16, 2013

oh, and re: segmented sleep - try just sleeping as soon as you get home from work, getting a few hours, getting up, watching some tv, etc, for a few hours and then going back to sleep later. I sometimes do that, too.
posted by empath at 4:15 AM on September 16, 2013

What are your caffeine habits like? For me, coffee in the morning is fine but a cola in the afternoon will have me waking up at 0-dark-thirty like you describe.
posted by jon1270 at 4:15 AM on September 16, 2013

I was getting this a lot during my Year Of Insomnia. (I was getting all the other kinds of sleep loss, too....) Here's a couple things to check...

1. Check whether there may be some regular event that may be happening at 3:30 every night that wakes you up, but stops before you're awake enough to note it - some kind of motor on a nearby building firing up, a dog getting let out, etc.

2. How is your stress level? I have problems with wakefulness when I'm especially worried about something.

3. Magnesium supplements are supposed to be good for helping you stay asleep once you're asleep. They helped me a lot - they also helped make sure I had a good quality of sleep, however long I did end up sleeping.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:24 AM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might be sleeping more than you think you are - there's a bunch of sleep lab data suggesting that people misperceive how sleepless they actually are. I deliberately stay in bed in the dark, boring myself gently, by counting backwards from a large, arbitrary number, in multiples of something just hard enough to keep me occupied but not to interest me, or by recounting a fairy tale, or going through a song lyric backwards. Something dull and pointless, but just engaging enough to keep the anxiety of sleeplessness at bay. But if you're so awake you're stressed, the evidence suggests you should get up to avoid associating your sleep environment with insomnia. I sometimes quietly get down on the floor and do some gentle stretching to kill a little time without getting worked up about the fact I'm awake (I figure it can't hurt, and maybe I'm awake because of pain or soreness so low-level I don't notice it.)
posted by gingerest at 4:47 AM on September 16, 2013

Also, I sometimes take an OTC antiinflammatory analgesic under the same logic, but not everyone's stomach will tolerate that.
posted by gingerest at 4:49 AM on September 16, 2013

Take Benadryl before bed. When I had a newborn baby who woke up a lot during the night, the nights I took Benadryl before bed I was able to go back to sleep after feeding him. The nights I didn't, I'd lie there awake for hours.
posted by amro at 5:05 AM on September 16, 2013

I sleep fine during the weekends

I suspect that it's worrying about getting back to sleep that keeps you awake. That's why you don't have this problem on days you don't need to get up early. I find that meditation (while in bed) helps me clear away thoughts that contribute to my staying awake.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:10 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I wake up like this, I listen to history podcasts on a timer, like 15 or 30 minutes. I have to use headphones but listening to people tell stories like this is interesting and puts me out. If I'm still awake I just restart it. I think it helps me get back to sleep because I can still keep my eyes closed.
posted by katinka-katinka at 5:17 AM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

posted by Jacqueline at 5:29 AM on September 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Tylenol PM before bed is pretty awesome, and non-addictive.
posted by dontjumplarry at 5:34 AM on September 16, 2013

It seems like this usually happens when you have to get up to go to the bathroom, yeah? I have the same issue. I found there's two ways to deal with this:

1) Don't drink water close to bedtime (doesn't work for me, I am perpetually thirsty and keep water beside my bed)

2) When you wake up and need to pee, go to the bathroom as soon as you realize that you need to. No dithering about how you'd rather stay in bed, that will simply wake you up more. Just go while you're still semi-asleep. Try to keep your eyes half shut, don't turn on any lights, try to maintain an almost asleep state. I still wake up to pee almost every morning around the same time as you, but at least I get back to sleep after.
posted by Paper rabies at 5:59 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Second gingerest on the utility of pointless boring tasks to soothe your mind back to sleep. I tend to play variations on the alphabet game with myself. Name a food that starts with each letter of the alphabet. Name an animal. Name a city. etc. I never last more than about one and a half iterations of this.
posted by Stacey at 7:23 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I find that listening to progressive relaxation/sleep-oriented guided visualization audio recordings is very helpful in overriding external and internal noise going on in my head if I am either having a hard time falling asleep or getting back to sleep in the middle of the night. This is one of those things where the more you practice at it the more effective it becomes, so it may be helpful to listen to the recording of your choice at times when you aren't likely to have difficulty falling asleep (training your body's physiological and psychological response.) I personally like this recording--the speaker's voice is soothing to me. It works so well that honest to god, I couldn't tell you what's on the last ten minutes of the audio.
posted by drlith at 7:42 AM on September 16, 2013

I just read an article on this! boring or low-impact really is key. above all else, stay away from screens -- they disrupt melatonin production.
posted by changeling at 7:45 AM on September 16, 2013

Are you turning the bathroom light on or checking the time using your phone? I find that just a little bit of light exposure is enough to tell my body it's morning.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:47 AM on September 16, 2013

If you are having no problem falling asleep, then taking melatonin before you fall asleep misses the point. It would make more sense to take the melatonin immediately after you wake up to pee. Then, you could just lie in the dark and relax, waiting for it to kick in. Don't do or think anything engaging or intense, not even counting, because counting demands keeping track of numbers which is an effort; rather, just drift gently with closed eyes, allowing yourself to experience your body, particularly the movement of your eyes behind closed eyelids; the drifting ought to translate into sleep in due time - try not to keep track of time at all, just keep drifting; it's similar to mediation, in that should a thought occur, don't focus on it, instead, let it go and focus back on your body sensation in a very narrow range (eyelids).
posted by VikingSword at 9:26 AM on September 16, 2013

Read something, with a lamp that's not too bright.

Don't turn on the computer, its screen is too bright, that'll wake you up 100%.

Knock it off with the melatonin, it's for special occasions only, like jet lag.
posted by Rash at 10:08 AM on September 16, 2013

Melatonin helps me fall asleep quickly, but I almost always wake up two or three hours later, my mind racing. So maybe lay off taking it for a while?
posted by vickyverky at 11:40 AM on September 16, 2013

I have had this problem. In my case the cause was sleeping under a down-filled duvet: in winter when the room was cold the duvet was comfortable to fall asleep under, but during the night I got so uncomfortably hot that it eventually woke me up. Replacing the duvet with a couple of thin blankets that I could throw off or pull over me as needed solved the problem.

Also, as I get older I find I'm fitter and more alert if I sleep a little less than I used to (I now feel fine sleeping six hours a night or so, while ten years ago I slept at least seven hours each night and often felt like I was about to keel over with fatigue at the end of the afternoon).

I also find that I sleep less (and feel fine sleeping less) if I only eat meat / fish and vegetables for dinner rather than a conventional meal with potatoes / pasta / etc.
posted by rjs at 1:17 PM on September 16, 2013

For all those recommending only lasts 4-6 hours, and it wearing off could cause you to wake up. (I always wake up at 4AM when I take Benadryl or Unisom)
posted by cabingirl at 1:39 PM on September 16, 2013

At these moments, my husband and I both take the same approach: MST3K on YouTube on the phone, turned down low. Something about the sound of those lulls both of us to sleep.

posted by nosila at 2:56 PM on September 16, 2013

If you decide to listen to podcasts/meditations/music, you can get pillows with headphones in them so your SO can't hear it. I don't have a specific recommendation, but google has lots of them.
posted by CathyG at 7:19 PM on September 16, 2013

For all those recommending only lasts 4-6 hours, and it wearing off could cause you to wake up.

YMMV. Doesn't work this way for me.
posted by amro at 7:25 PM on September 16, 2013

CathyG: "If you decide to listen to podcasts/meditations/music, you can get pillows with headphones in them so your SO can't hear it."

I've had my eye on a pair (set?) of SleepPhones for exactly this reason.
posted by Lexica at 7:44 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem. This is how I manage:

- Listen to an audiobook. The book has to be interesting enough for you to keep listening and get your mind wandering, but it can't be too exciting. For me it has to be nonfiction. I have to use earphones so as not to wake my wife, so I have to keep the volume to be barely above audible to protect my hearing.

- If you use a smartphone, install software that really dims the screen. I use Screen Adjuster on Android. You already have a fan to generate white noise, but you can also install and app like Chroma Doze to create other types of background noise.

- Getting up and doing something boring, as many suggest, doesn't work for me. It takes too long for me to get sleepy again. Reading means turning on the light, so I avoid it. Use a nightlight in the bathroom if you have to go. I think staying in the dark and taking advantage of the residual grogginess will work faster.

- I have zopiclone as backup, but I avoid it. If I use it every night, I find it hard to sleep when I stop. If I do use it, one-third to one-half of a 7.5 mg tab is usually enough.

I think I wake up in the middle of the night because of hypervigilance, having grown up in a bad neighborhood. I generally have no trouble anymore initiating sleep, but I`m guessing at 4 am my sleep level is such that any noise wakes me up. I don`t think I can do much about preventing that. BTW, there is research that suggests waking up in the middle of the night is how stone-age humans slept, so what we`re suffering from might be a completely natural condition.
posted by KwaiChangCaine at 8:00 PM on September 16, 2013

Imagine the sound of your alarm going off.

No, seriously. My alarm is an obnoxious beeping that starts soft and gets louder and louder, eating away at my soul with every pulse. When I can't fall asleep, I close my eyes and imagine it in my head.

That "just five more minutes!" feeling should wash over you pretty quickly.
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 8:07 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wake up nearly every night around the same time as you (I need to pee, or the dog needs to pee, or just whatever), and it can be very difficult to get back to sleep. Things that help me are keeping it dark by leaving the bathroom light off (you can put a nightlight in there) and not checking my laptop email etc. (too bright), but best of all, having logic or math or "lateral thinking" puzzles on hand that I can mentally mull over when back in bed in the dark – I like such puzzles and they don't bore me, but somehow in the wee hours they do manage to put me right back to sleep, usually licketysplit.

Last night I woke up several times because of noises, earache, needing to pee... and each time I went right back to bed without turning on the light, and started thinking about this puzzle (still haven't figured it out or checked the answer, so I don't know if this is a dumb puzzle), and fell right back to sleep. Numbers puzzles, how-many-black-white-socks, etc., truthtellers and liars-type, "you need to weigh stuff on a balance scale"-type, are always good for knocking me right out, as long as they aren't too easy.

I'm usually checking mail, etc. on my tablet when I go to bed, so I already have the screen brightness set very low for that and when I wake up and try to go back to sleep I can check the puzzles on my tablet with the low light, or I can have a book of puzzles beside the bed with booklight or nightlight. It's very important for me not to get a blast of light, because then I will be up for at least an hour or more, or just not get back to bed at all.
posted by taz at 8:04 AM on September 17, 2013

Usually it's stress that causes this kind of early waking/mind racing. Try exercising after work and meditating/yoga before bed.

I find that if I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep quickly, listening to an audiobook or podcast with my eyes closed can help. If that doesn't work, and you're a couple of hours away from your alarm going off, just get out of bed, make some coffee, and start your day. Accept that you'll be tired. Being tired won't kill you--and anyway, you'll probably actually feel worse if you do manage to go back to sleep. Use the time to take care of annoying tasks that you know you won't want to do after work the next day because you're tired--laundry, dishes, paying bills, whatever. Hell, if you have a 24-hour grocery store, do the shopping.

Don't have any caffeine after lunch. Don't nap (or if you must, don't nap very long). You should sleep longer the next night.

If it happens again, stay up again, then an hour before bedtime, take some Benadryl and go to bed as soon as you feel sleepy. You really should sleep through the night this time.

If you don't, it's worth a call to your doctor.
posted by elizeh at 5:08 PM on September 17, 2013

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