9 Tips to Fall Back Asleep After Waking Up at Night
Each night when we settle into bed for restorative sleep, we hope to sleep all the way through. Ideally, the plan doesn’t involve waking up in the middle of the night.
Watching the clock tick by is never an ideal situation, but we’ve all experienced it before. Even worse, as you watch the minutes pass, frustration can build that you won’t get enough sleep to power through the next day feeling your best.
Tricks to fall back to sleep vary depending on each person. What works great for some people might not work for others. But once you find something that does work for you, it may work in a few ways. According to Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., a behavioral sleep medicine specialist, many of the tips for falling back asleep after waking could also be effective methods to try out before bed to help you stay asleep rather than awaken overnight. Breathing exercises, gentle stretching, or calming music could all help soothe you into sleepiness.
Below are sleep-specialist-recommended techniques to try if you’re struggling to fall back asleep or even get to sleep in the first place.
Make Sure There Are No Sleep-Disrupting Elements in Your Bedroom
Imagine trying to sleep in the cramped seat of a red-eye flight versus sleeping in a luxurious hotel bed. Creating a comfortable sleep environment is step one in ensuring the best setup to fall back asleep if you wake up in the middle of the night. It can be hard to feel rested and rejuvenated if your sleep environment doesn’t feel good.
It may sound obvious, but if you’re not comfortable in bed, you probably won’t get your best, most sustained overnight sleep. “Making your bedroom environment, including the bed, as comfortable as possible is important so that you're not waking up in the middle of the night due to back pain or other comfort issues caused by the bedding itself,” Troxel says.
Your mattress, pillow, bed frame, and bedding all contribute to how well you sleep. Finding the right mattress that allows you to feel comfortable and supported makes a big difference in how well you sleep each night and feel the next day. Your pillow, which takes up about 25% of the length of your bed and supports your head and neck, is not to be overlooked either.
It’s just as important that the space be calming — an element that can affect both the feel and the look of your sleep space.
Everyone’s ideal bedroom looks different, but one universal guideline is making sure the bedroom is orderly. Troxel says that messes can create stress. She advises “keeping your bedroom tidy and free from any work-related distractions or the general detritus of the day like a pile of laundry.”
Once the room looks calming, be sure that it’s cool, dark, and quiet. Studies show that most people sleep best in a dark and quiet room that’s a comfortable temperature, usually between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
Keep in mind sharing a bed with a partner, kids, or pets could be the cause of waking up in the middle of the night. If that’s the case, figure out what about them is keeping you up. A motion-isolating mattress can help if pets jump on the bed or your partner tosses and turns. If snores awaken you, earplugs or a white-noise machine could help.
From there, add a few relaxing touches. Soft lighting, candles, or an aromatherapy diffuser could help cue you into relaxation, setting the tone for great sleep.
Learn the Right Relaxation Technique for When You Wake Up
When you do wake up in the middle of the night, it’s important to get yourself into a calm and relaxing headspace. Overnight, your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which helps govern logic, executive function, and rational thought, is recharging, meaning it’s easier for your emotions to run wild. Getting into relaxation mode is critical, so finding the right relaxation techniques could be the key to finding sleepiness again. Your path to relaxation might involve reading a book, practicing gentle yoga poses, or sipping a warm cup of tea.
Jade Wu, Ph.D., a behavioral sleep medicine specialist and Sleep Advisor to Mattress Firm, mentions that the point of relaxation techniques is “to get out of the mind and into the body.” Often racing thoughts or frustration about a lack of sleep can create anxiety and adrenaline that prevent us from feeling the calm we need to drift back to sleep. It’s ok to test a few relaxation techniques to find which one you enjoy best. Stick to that one so that it becomes habitual for overnight awakenings.
Deep-Breathing Techniques to Fall Back Asleep
If practicing gets you into a more relaxed and calm frame of mind, it could help you fall back asleep after waking. Breathwork isn’t just for yogis. Studies show that the right breathing can lower heart rate and bring on calmness—even Navy Seals practice breathwork for intense situations. Their version, box breathing, involves visualizing a box made up of four, four-second lines. To complete the box, you breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out for four counts, then hold your empty lungs for four before commencing a new breath box.
Some studies have shown that taking six breaths per minute can be ideal for lowering heart rate and promoting a relaxed state. Start by finding a comfortable position. With eyes closed, inhale through the nose for a count of four. Hold for a second before gently exhaling through the mouth for a count of four. Some sleepers also find it beneficial to repeat a calming word or phrase during this breathing exercise.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Better Sleep
We’re often tense throughout the day as we deal with stressors and anxieties of life. This tenseness can easily interrupt our sleep if we’re not mindful to relax. Eliminating stress points can help as a physical reminder to your brain to unwind. Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves focusing on one area of the body at a time and then flexing the muscles and releasing.
“Systematically tensing and releasing different muscle groups throughout the body from head to toe can help us experience a deep presence of relaxation,” Troxel explains. “This method is really good for those who need to do something more physical if they want to relax.” She also mentions this could be a great addition to a sleep hygiene routine done before bed.
To practice this, find a comfortable position in bed. Slowly focus on one area of the body at a time, starting at the head or the foot. Tense the area and hold before slowly releasing into a relaxed position.
Wu adds that progressive muscle relaxation can also help because it gives the sleeper something to focus on rather than getting caught up in the frustration of not being able to fall back to sleep. She recommends mentally checking in with each body part and making sure all is well, starting with your littlest toe.
Mindfulness and Meditation for Improved Sleep Quality
Mindfulness and meditation can improve sleep quality since they promote relaxation. Both focus on the mind in the present moment with no other distractions. To practice these, find a comfortable position in bed or in your home. With eyes closed, focus on your breath and the feeling of air moving in and out of your body. If your mind starts to wander, bring the focus back to each breath. The purpose is to always be in the present moment without any worrying thoughts.
You might also want to try out apps like Calm or Headspace that are designed to help with guided meditation or calming audio stories that could help lull you back to sleep.
Visualization Techniques for a Return to Slumbe
Imagine you’re in your favorite place in the world, enjoying a peaceful moment. Visualization techniques like this can help you fall back to sleep by promoting calming thoughts. This can be something like going to a happy place, or it can also be little items like walking downstairs one step at a time, says Wu.
One of the most common visualization techniques is counting sheep, but your ideal visualization might involve laying on a beach watching waves come in or standing on a mountaintop. To practice visualization when you can’t fall back to sleep, get comfortable in bed and take some deep, relaxing breaths. Visualize your location and focus on details of colors, sounds, and the feel of your surroundings. You can also combine these visualization exercises with deep breathing if that feels best for creating a calm mind.
Troxel also recommends using this as a way to initially fall asleep, with the hope of it helping you stay asleep.
Yoga and Stretching for Better Sleep
Gentle yoga or stretching could also be great for helping you get back to sleep. “It's all about being in the moment with your body, feeling the sensations in your body, and following your breath,” Wu says. “That can just really get your body to be in a very happy place and relax.” To practice yoga or stretching, be sure you’re in a comfortable place and wearing comfortable clothing. Focus on slow, gentle movements and deep breaths.
You can also add gentle bedtime yoga into your nightly sleep routine. “This would help signal your body and mind that it’s time for relaxation,” adds Wu.
Relaxing Music to Promote Rest
Music can have a strong impact on our moods and thoughts. If you’re trying to fall back asleep, it can offer a calming element to focus on. “It really just kind of takes a chatter in your mind away and like… puts you in a better mood, and that helps you fall asleep,” Wu explains.
Choose music you find calming and relaxing to listen to, either in or out of bed, if you’re trying to fall back asleep. It’s also important to be mindful of disrupting a sleep partner while considering if your music device exposes you to blue light. Troxel recommends using a music device that isn’t your cell phone since that could cause further arousal from the blue light and the temptation to check texts, email, or social media rather than making you more relaxed and ready for bed again.
Writing Down the Worry and Leaving It Behind
Rather than let anxiety churn in your brain, it can be helpful to offload it into a notebook.
One of Wu’s favorite iterations of this also overlaps with the tip of visualization. “One of my favorite methods is leaves on the stream, where you walk yourself through a forest, sit down at a stream and imagine putting your thoughts on leaves and putting the leaves on the stream and watching the leaf float away in its own time,” she says.
You can also leave a notepad beside your bed and write down any concerns or anxiety-producing thoughts as they arise. Both Wu and Troxel say some people do best with a scheduled worry time during the day, far before bedtime. This time is dedicated exclusively to worrying about anything bothering you.
“Write down whatever's on your mind and close the notebook,” Wu says. “And then know you’ve downloaded the thoughts from your brain to paper, and you don't need to hold that in your mind anymore,” Wu says.
If you wake up in the middle of the night with worrying thoughts, remind yourself that you have dedicated “worry time” set aside tomorrow to deal with those thoughts that are disruptive to relaxation.
Get Out of Bed To Fall Back Asleep
While watching the clock isn’t recommended, Troxel says that if you feel like it’s been more than 30 minutes since you awoke, you might want to consider getting out of bed to do something relaxing. If you begin to feel frustrated that you’re not falling back to sleep, that could be the signal that getting out of bed might be best. “We want to protect the bed as a happy place. So, whether you're ruminating or meditating, if you're unhappy and stressed out, don't be in bed,” says Wu. “If you're relaxed and happy, then by all means, you can stay in bed.”
If you decide to get out of bed, go engage in a relaxing activity, such as:
- reading a boring book
- doing some gentle stretches
- listening to calming music
Whatever you do, try to keep lights dim, as bright lights can suppress natural melatonin production and could be detrimental to falling back asleep.
Popular Questions and Answers About Falling Asleep
What if I still can’t fall back asleep after trying these tips?
How to fall back asleep comes with an individualized solution. Wu and Troxel agree that occasionally having a night where you wake up for a period of time in the middle of the night is nothing to get upset about. Wu says that we should remember sleep is dynamic, and you don’t need to get the precise amount each night.
What should I do if I wake up several times every night?
If you’re consistently having trouble sleeping, seeking help from a sleep specialist can help you find a solution. While occasionally waking in the middle of the night is common and nothing to worry about, consistently having trouble getting enough sleep could be a sign of a condition that needs to be treated by a doctor.