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Exactly what to do when you wake up in the night, according to a sleep psychologist.

If there’s one thing all humans have in common, it’s being able to relate to the annoyance that is a sleepless night.

The tossing. The turning. The “OH MY GOD IT’S 4AM ALREADY”.

Yep. We’ve all been there.

For some, it’s an annual occurrence on the back of one too many coffees in the office after 4pm. For others, it is a completely debilitating battle every night (for these people, professional help is essential).

Regardless of where you sit on the sleeplessness spectrum, the truth is that we all want to sleep better.

We spoke to sleep psychologist Dr Liora Kempler from Integrated Sleep Health to find out exactly what you should and shouldn’t do if you wake up in the middle of the night, and how your habits during the day can affect the quality of your sleep at night.

The answers are surprising.

Firstly, Dr Kempler emphasises that everyone wakes up around twice every night, but that most people don’t remember.

“Everybody wakes up during the night, it’s a normal part of the sleep staging,” Dr Kempler explains.

She added that waking up in the night is a good thing, and that it’s essential from an evolutionary perspective to ensure you are still safe.

“I think one of the problems that arises is that people wake through the night and then think that they have a problem, and then they catastrophise when really it’s not a problem at all,” Dr Kempler explains.

Waking up in the night is normal. But if you find yourself awake and aware of it, what you do determines how you sleep for the rest of the night, and can even result in bad habits.

“It’s not the waking that’s the problem, it’s what happens during that wake that can become a problem,” explains Dr Kempler.

Here are the best and worst things you can do if you wake up in the night.

 1. Get out of bed after 15 minutes. 

If you’ve been lying in bed in the middle of the night for 15 minutes or longer, Dr Kempler says it’s time to get out of bed.

“Our brains will start to associate bed with whatever we do in it, so it will associate bed with sleep once we sleep in it and if we worry in it, it will associate bed with worry to the point where you’ll eventually have a really relaxing day and then lie down and immediately feel alert, thinking and worrying because that’s basically what you’ve taught your brain to do,” she explains.

She says the best thing you can do is go into another room and sit in a dark room on a chair. It allows you to take your worrying or thinking out of the bed, takes the pressure off the sleep, and allows you to get sleepy again. When you find yourself on the brink of sleep, it’s time to jump back into bed.

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“I always think if you’re trying to reduce the duration of night wakes then you need to commit as much as you can, and don’t do anything but bore yourself in a chair until you’re ready for sleep again,” Dr Kempler explains.

2. Don’t look at the clock.

When you’re awake smack bang in the middle of the night, it can be tempting to check the clock, but it is a terrible idea.

“[Checking the clock] validates how long you’ve been awake and how you ‘should’ feel the next day, and you put more pressure on your sleep,” says Dr Kempler.

Yep, checking the clock puts numbers and figures to the sleepless period, adding pressure to get back to sleep.

The exception, of course, is new mums, who might need to check the time to see if the baby is due for a feed.

3. Don’t do anything stimulating. 

If you stimulate your brain when you’re awake in the middle of the night, you risk making waking up in the night part of your routine.

The key, says Dr Kempler, is to avoid anything even vaguely stimulating during the wake period.

This includes eating, watching television, and reading intense books.

Reading something light or meditating in the chair in the dark room is okay, as long as it doesn’t become too stimulating.

You really need to bore yourself to sleep.

4. Don’t go to bed earlier. Seriously. 

Many of think that if we’re exhausted we should go to bed before we’re tired, to “catch up on sleep”.

This… doesn’t work.

Dr Kempler explains that by going to bed earlier with the intent to go to sleep earlier, we just spend more time thinking in bed, which strengthens the association between bed and thinking.

She suggests that going to bed later than usual and making yourself tired is best.

“Start sleep patterns in the morning not the night. You want to keep the same wake up time daily if you can,” she says.

But… What about parents of newborns? 

Parents of newborns are the exception to the rule. They are exhausted, and adjusting to a new routine in which they will be woken in the night.

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“Having that sleep fragmentation is already a big change, and something that we need to get used to,” explains Dr Kempler.

She adds that while many parents drift back into a normal sleep pattern when their baby begins sleeping through the night, others are not so lucky, and begin worrying about when the next feed or wake will be.

“They start engaging in thought in that wake period. And that’s where the problem can arise,” she explains.

She added that for parents of newborns, jumping into bed earlier is okay, because it might be the only way they will catch up on sleep.

What to do during the day. 

There are many things you can do during the day to increase your chances of not remembering when you wake up in the night (because you will wake up).

“If you can get out for a morning walk in natural light without sunglasses that’s one of the best ways to start your day and feel energised. It is very conducive to the next night of sleep, it’s a very good habit to get into going for a morning walk within an hour of waking up,” explains Dr Kempler.

She added that exercise in the morning or afternoon is great, but that late night exercise is bad for sleep because the body needs to cool down.

She also explains that avoiding heavy meals three to five hours before sleep is essential.

You had a bad sleep. What can you do the next day? 

The best thing you can do if you’re feeling tired during the day is take responsibility and do something that makes you feel better.

Dr Kempler explains that splashing your face with water, or going for a walk outside can help to increase energy.

“If you’re feeling exhausted the worst thing to do is to do nothing with it… You don’t want to become a slave to your exhaustion,” she explains.

So if you’re reading this on your phone in bed at 3am, put it down and go and sit in a dark room on a chair. You won’t regret it.

Behavioural changes can be effective for most people, but many have a lot of anxiety around their sleep. If you feel you are having problems with your sleep, please do not hesitate to contact your GP for professional support.

Dr Liora Kemper is a Sleep Psychologist at Integrated Sleep Health who specialises in helping new mothers sleep. 

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