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Waking Up at Night? Here’s How Often It Happens and What To Do if It Does

Ashley Abramson

December 19, 20234 minutes

The common belief that a perfect night's sleep is an unbroken eight-hour slumber is a myth. In reality, waking up during the night is a natural part of healthy sleep patterns. Most of us wake up at least a few times in the middle of the night, which isn’t cause for concern.

But sometimes it can be hard to fall back asleep, and all that tossing and turning can lead to morning grogginess and fatigue that, in the long run, could impact your well-being.

The good news? First, know that waking up at night is totally normal. And for the times that you don’t doze off again quickly, there are effective strategies to help get you back to sleep. 

The science of 3 AM wake-ups

Your body is wired to need sleep, but it’s also wired to wake up throughout the night. According to Jade Wu Ph.D., a behavioral sleep psychologist, researcher at Duke University School of Medicine, and Hatch medical advisor, most healthy adults between ages 30 and 65 wake up 10 to 15 times every night. (Yes, you read that correctly.) “You probably don’t even notice or remember most of those, because they’re super brief, and you’re half asleep,” she says. 

These quick wake-ups usually happen when you’re transitioning between different stages of sleep, Dr. Wu explains, and they’re essentially your brain’s way of scanning the environment to make sure you’re safe. If nothing’s going on that your brain thinks it needs to pay attention to, then you typically fall back asleep. The cycle continues throughout the night without any negative impact on the sleep cycle or your quality of rest.

Another reason for intermittent nightly wake-ups: Before the advent of artificial light, night was really long. There wasn’t much people could do after sunset, but they also didn’t need 12 hours of sleep, so they’d wake up for a few hours in the middle to do chores or just hang out. “Now our lifestyles are different, so we expect and want to sleep in one solid chunk, but our biology is still stuck in that state of wanting to wake up at 2 or 3 AM and stay awake for a while,” says Dr. Wu. 

What to do if you wake up in the middle of the night 

If you wake up after a few hours of sleep (and you’re actually aware of it), it’s important to do your best to get back to bed. Let’s start with what not to do. If you’re lying in bed awake at 3 AM, don’t do anything that could trick your body into thinking it’s daytime, or you could incite a cycle of sleeplessness. 

“You don’t want to turn on the lights and start answering emails and act as if you’re getting up for the day,” says Dr. Wu. If you have to go to the bathroom or grab a sip of water, do it quickly, and try to maintain a sleepy environment. Keeping light minimal is one way to do that since light exposure tells your body it’s time to wake up. A nightlight or dim light is better than turning on all the lights. Dr. Wu says she keeps a gauzy cloth over her lampshade at night to prevent bright light from interfering with her sleep.

And if you’re lying there awake, try your best not to stress about it (easier said than done, we know). If you have a Hatch device, you can turn on your Unwind routine again to help your body naturally ease into sleep with a dimming sunset and soothing sounds.  

Also, know that thinking about what time it is and counting the hours until you have to wake up will only trigger anxiety, which makes it harder to fall asleep. “If you work too hard at it, you start to get in your head about it,” says Dr. Wu. Try not to look at the clock — turn yours around if you have to, and resist the urge to grab your phone and expose yourself to sleep-dampening blue-light. If you have a Hatch device, use the tap-for-time feature to keep your clock display off during the night.

Instead, focus on relaxing your mind and body, even just taking a few slow, deep breaths while relaxing all your muscles. If you want to, you can even count some sheep. Eventually, you should drift off into sleep — and if you wake up a few more times, chances are, you won’t even remember them.