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What’s keeping you up at night? From bathroom trips to runaway thoughts, these tips can help

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Rest easy knowing that a few simple life changes may help you sleep better.

It happened again: Your eyes popped open at 3 a.m. and you were wide awake. You kept checking the time. You worried about whether you’d be too tired the next day. You tossed and turned but couldn’t get back to sleep.

Waking up in the middle of the night can be frustrating. But it’s also common, says Reeba Mathew, MD. She’s a sleep doctor in Houston, Texas. She’s also a speaker for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).

“As we get older, we wake up more often during sleep,” she says. “It’s OK if you wake up a few times and then go back to sleep quickly.” But it starts to become a problem when you stay awake for 20–30 minutes or more.

Many people also have trouble falling asleep. The National Institutes of Health says about 70 million Americans have a sleep issue,1 like insomnia. Insomnia is when it’s hard to fall asleep or stay asleep.

The good news? There are simple steps you can take to help get a better night’s rest. Here are 6 things that may be keeping you up, plus ways to deal with them to help you sleep well all night long.

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1. You get up to use the bathroom

Do you ever need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night? It happens. About 40% of adults get out of bed at least once a night for this reason.2 It’s likely to happen if you drink a lot of liquids before bedtime. Some medicines can also cause a full bladder. One example is diuretics (water pills) for high blood pressure.

You may also need to use the bathroom more at night if you have:3

  • A bladder infection
  • An enlarged prostate
  • Urinary tract infection

Sleep-better tip: Avoid drinking too much water or any other liquids close to your bedtime. If you’re taking a water pill, ask your doctor if you can take the medication in the morning. A few sips of water to take a nighttime medication should be OK.

There may still be some nights when you wake up with a full bladder. When that happens, try not to turn on much light on your way to the bathroom. Light sends wake-up signals to the brain, Dr. Mathew says. Use a night light in your hallway and bathroom instead of turning on other lights.

2. Loud noises wake you up

It’s hard to stay asleep when sounds bother you. Some common noises are:

  • Traffic
  • Noisy neighbors
  • A snoring partner
  • Falling asleep with the TV on
  • Dogs barking
  • Phone notifications
  • Thunderstorms

Sleep-better tip: Try a white noise machine or white noise app on your phone.4 (Just make sure to keep your phone on Do Not Disturb mode. That way, you won’t be woken up by alerts in the middle of the night.) The steady hum of white noise can hide other noises. This can help you sleep better. A ceiling fan or floor fan can work well, too, says Dr. Mathew. Earplugs also help hide sounds.

If your partner snores, suggest that they go see a doctor. Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea makes your breathing stop and start, over and over. Sleep apnea is linked to health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression.5

3. You share your bed with a pet

It may feel comforting to fall asleep snuggling with your pet. But studies say that sharing a bed with your furry friend may make you sleep worse.6 Dogs and cats sleep differently than humans. When they wake up in the middle of the night, it can bother your sleep. And having them in your bed might also trigger allergies. (Though, if you have pet allergies, it doesn’t matter if they’re in your bed or not. They may trigger your allergies and keep you up.7)

Sleep-better tip: Does your pet wake you up when they move around or snore? Find them somewhere else to sleep. That might mean getting them a comfortable pet bed. You can put it on the floor in your bedroom. Or place it in another room if you think they’ll try to jump back into bed with you.

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4. Your kids sleep in your bed

Young kids often start the night in their own bed. But later at night, they may sneak into their parents’ bed. And kids can move around a lot in their sleep. You’ll probably feel a few kicks during the night.

Sleep-better tip: Snuggles with your kids are great. But if you’re not getting a good night’s sleep, urge your kids to sleep in their own room. That can be tough because your child may not like that idea. Your best choice is to work with your child’s doctor, says Dr. Mathew. They can help you come up with a plan to help your child learn to sleep in their own bed. And you can get all those cuddles in when the sun comes up.

Do you have a baby? The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend sleeping with your baby. Instead, they suggest room-sharing. Put your baby to sleep in their own crib, bassinet or play yard in your bedroom. That helps reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by as much as 50%.8

5. You drink alcohol close to bedtime

Alcohol is not really a helpful sleep aid. Yes, having wine or a cocktail at night can help you fall asleep faster. But you’ll likely wake up again a few hours later.

Alcohol can break up your sleep,9 according to the AASM. A drink at night can also cause you to wake up to use the bathroom a few hours later.

Sleep-better tip: Don’t use alcohol to help you fall asleep. Even one or two drinks can affect your sleep, Dr. Mathew says.

6. Your mind is racing

There’s plenty in life to stress about. Maybe you had an argument with a friend. Or you’re worried about money. Or you’re nervous about a doctor’s appointment coming up. It’s easy to push these worries aside when you’re busy during the day. But it’s common to feel stressed by these kinds of thoughts when you wake up in the middle of the night.

Sleep-better tip: Keep a journal on your nightstand and write down any stressful thoughts you have before bed. That gives your worries some place else to live besides in your head. Then you can deal with them in the morning. You may better be able to come up with a solution then.

What if you wake up at 2 a.m. worrying anyway? Dr. Mathew advises thinking about something nice and calm. Think about a vacation you had or a walk in your favorite park. Deep breathing exercises can also help calm anxiety.

What to do if you can’t get back to sleep

If you can’t fall back to sleep after 20 or 30 minutes, get out of bed. That may sound like the opposite of what you should do. But it works, says Dr. Mathew. Go to another room and do something calm, like reading a book or knitting. Just be sure to stay away from screens and electronics. The blue light from screens can mess with your sleep.4

Then, when you feel sleepy again, head back to bed. You might find that this reset helps you drift off into a deep sleep. Dream well.

Sources

  1. National Institutes of Health. What are sleep deprivation and deficiency? Updated March 24, 2022. Accessed March 3, 2023.
  2. Sleep Foundation. Nocturia. Updated March 2, 2023. Accessed March 3, 2023.
  3. MedlinePlus. Urinating more at night. Accessed March 31, 2023.
  4. Sleep Foundation. Healthy Sleep Habits. Accessed March 31, 2023.
  5. Sleep Foundation. Snoring and Sleep. Last updated March 2, 2023. Accessed March 31, 2023.
  6. Sleep Health. The effects of bed sharing on sleep: From partners to pets. Published June 2021. Accessed February 9, 2023.
  7. Sleep Foundation. Sleeping with Pets. Last updated March 10, 2023. Accessed March 31, 2023.
  8. American Academy of Pediatrics. “How to keep your sleeping baby safe: AAP policy explained.” Last updated July 14, 2022. Accessed March 4, 2023.
  9. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Five drinks to avoid before going to bed. Published July 30, 2019. Accessed February 9, 2023.

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