How waking up during the night can be a natural part of sleep

01 April 2022

It has been estimated that poor sleep costs the UK economy up to £40bn each year in lost productivity, with sleep-deprived workers less able to function effectively at work, more likely to be off work because of illness and more prone to accidents or injuries.

This only got worse during the Covid-19 pandemic, with researchers from Southampton University concluding that the stresses and strains of living through a public health crisis caused a surge in anxiety-related sleeping problems, leaving as many as one in four Britons suffering from insomnia as a result.

We've probably all been there at some point - anxiously tossing and turning in the dark, which makes it even harder to nod off; watching the clock as it ticks down to the moment when, exhausted, you need to drag yourself out of bed.

However, as 'sleep evangelist' and scientist Dr Sophie Bostock says, waking up in the night is a natural part of sleep and there are coping strategies you can use when this next happens to you.

Sleep is important for mental health in the workplace and it's key to encourage good sleep among employees.

How waking up during the night can be a natural part of sleep

Dr Sophie Bostock explains the different stages and cycles of sleep, causes of insomnia and how to manage night sleeplessness.

Understanding the different stages of sleep

Dr Bostock begins by explaining how, when we sleep, we go through different stages and cycles of sleep. "Stage one is a light transition stage as our consciousness starts to switch off. We sometimes get the sensation of falling, and can awaken with a jerk," she says, with this stage normally only lasting five to ten minutes.

"Stage two is where we spend most of our time asleep. It involves a slowing down of heart and breathing rates as the brain starts to strengthen certain types of memory. Tracking devices will usually combine stages one and two together and call them 'light sleep'. We usually spend half of our night in light sleep.

"Stage three, or deep sleep, is the juicy, physically restorative stage of sleep where it is quite hard to wake someone up. This is prime time for restoring energy levels, repairing damaged tissues and strengthening the immune system," Dr Bostock continues.

"After deep sleep, we go back into a lighter stage of sleep, called 'REM' or 'rapid eye movement'. You're most likely to remember your dreams if you wake up from REM sleep. Our main muscle groups are largely paralysed during REM sleep, perhaps to stop us acting out our dreams.

"This is when the brain is busy rebalancing your emotions and pruning unimportant memories. Every time we pass through all four stages of sleep, this is called a sleep cycle; and it takes about 90 to 100 minutes. So, you will probably have between four and six cycles every night," she adds.

Causes of sleeplessness and insomnia

Cycles in the first part of the night will normally contain more deep sleep whereas those in the early hours of the morning will be more REM sleep. Importantly, we're more likely to wake up, even just momentarily, between sleep cycles as that's when we're sleeping more lightly, Dr Bostock points out.

"This can be a natural part of sleep and doesn't necessarily mean you disturb the overall quality of your night," she emphasises.

In fact, when you're not worried about your sleep what normally happens is you simply roll over and fall back asleep. However, when this doesn't happen it may be for a number of reasons.

As Dr Bostock points out: "Stress, alcohol, caffeine, dehydration and late-night eating can all disrupt the deeper stages of sleep and make you more likely to wake up. Sounds, movements from a bed partner or changes in temperature can also wake you easily between cycles."

Ageing can be another factor in increased sleeplessness at night. The older we get, the more breaks we tend to have between sleep cycles, with our sleep becoming more fragmented. Counter-intuitively, wearing a sleep tracker can sometimes cause anxiety that we're not getting enough of the 'right' kind of sleep, with Dr Bostock cautioning that trackers may not be that accurate at showing this.

"Trackers can be really useful for looking at your trends over time but try not to compare yourself to other people. The truth is there is no recipe for the perfect amount of each stage of sleep. They will change from night to night depending on what you’ve done during the day and how well you slept in the previous few nights," she says.

One positive note here, Dr Bostock explains, is that, if you do have a poor night's sleep, normally your body will naturally make up for it with a more restorative night's sleep the next.

How to manage night sleeplessness

What, however, should you do if your night isn't going well? What techniques can you use to help manage a sleepless night?

The first thing, Dr Bostock emphasises, is to recognise that waking up in the night isn't 'wrong' or 'bad' in itself.

As she advises: "If you do wake up in the night, reassure yourself this is perfectly normal. If you don't immediately return to sleep, check in with yourself. Do you need the toilet? Are you too hot or thirsty? Avoid putting on any bright lights but make yourself comfortable and close your eyes. If the body needs more sleep, it will come.

"Enjoy the sensation of feeling relaxed, safe and comfortable – with nothing to do. If you feel yourself getting anxious, try five deep breaths – all the way in, feel your belly rise, pause, and slowly breathe all the way out. Feel yourself relax with every out breath. If thoughts start to bother you, say to yourself, the word 'the'. Two seconds later, say it again – 'the'.

"This simple, dull word is quite an effective thought blocker when you are already half asleep. If you still feel wide awake after about 15 or 20 minutes and you're getting anxious or frustrated about not being able to sleep, don't wrestle with it. Rather than lie there, reinforcing 'I can’t sleep' thoughts, get out of bed and find a cosy space where you can sit in dim light. Read a book, meditate, listen to a podcast, or even watch TV – something distracting where you're not trying to sleep," Dr Bostock adds.

One of the problems with lying in bed worrying about not sleeping is that it can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Your brain learns that worrying is what your bed is for, and you can get into a pattern of waking up to worry, which can progress over time to feeling anxious as soon as you lie down to sleep," highlights Dr Bostock.

"To start to recreate a more positive bed-sleep connection, take your worries out of bed. Getting out of bed in the middle of the night can be very difficult, so it is worth preparing with a blanket and a good book ahead of time to make it easier," she recommends.

"When your eyelids start to feel heavy and you realise you are getting sleepy again, get back into bed. If you don't feel sleepy all night and end up staying awake, don't despair.

"Remind yourself that your sleep will be deeper the next night. Keep in mind that you won't be jumping out of bed forever. This is just for a few weeks while you retrain the brain to recognise that your bed is the place where sleeping happens," she adds.

In conclusion, Dr Bostock emphasises: "Everyone wakes up during the night. If you're wide awake for 15 or 20 minutes, get out of bed. For a positive bed-sleep connection, only get into bed when you're sleepy and get out of bed if you're definitely not."

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.