Why Do I Keep Waking Up At 3am?

It isn’t abnormal to wake up during the night, but falling back asleep quickly is important — yet challenging for some of us.
Why do I keep waking up at 3am?

“Why do I keep waking up at 3am?” It’s a question you might often find yourself asking. A good night’s rest is as essential to health and wellness as diet and activity level. Rest underpins our physical and mental growth, recovery and maintenance. Lack of sleep — combined with the stress, frustration and anxiety it brings — can become a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself. Worse, poor sleep quality can contribute to higher risks for cardiometabolic and other chronic disorders.

While it’s normal to wake up multiple times throughout the night and more than acceptable to wake up temporarily in the early morning hours, more than half of Americans experience difficulty falling back asleep. Experts tell us that while a variety of factors play into how much sleep we need, there are just a handful of reasons why we typically wake up and can’t fall back asleep. Here’s how to gain a better understanding of those reasons, plus some simple strategies to help you get better at controlling them so you can stop waking up a 3am and enjoy better rest.   

How to determine the right amount of sleep for you

Sleep needs are complicated: genetics, environment, physical activity and daily behaviors all play roles. For example, competitive athletes need more sleep to perform and recover than others in the same demographic group, as do pregnant and nursing women (for different reasons). The optimal amount of sleep will be different from person to person, so the best way to identify the ideal number of hours is to determine if you feel well-rested and able to perform well throughout the day. 

While sleep needs are extremely individualized, there are national and international standards based on normal sleep distribution by age group (see the chart below). These ranges are used as a guide to help identify sleep disorders and do not indicate that anyone not achieving these hours is abnormal. 

Age is one of the most consistent factors that plays into a good night’s sleep because science tells us that circadian rhythm (the internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours) is tightly linked to lifestage. Babies don’t establish a circadian rhythm until about 10-12 weeks, when sleep becomes more closely linked to nighttime. As children age, the amount of sleep needed generally declines along with the number of naps. Later in life, older adults tend to have more difficulty falling and staying asleep, due to another shift in circadian rhythm.

Source: National Sleep Foundation

Why do you keep waking up at night?

Because sleep disturbance, like waking up at 3am every night, is determined by nearly every factor taking place in your life, it’s difficult to explain exactly why you’re awake before you want to be. However, there are a number of popular reasons that doctors and scientists often find as the contributing factors:

  • Your body is conditioned to it. Consider if you’ve recently had a reason for waking up at that time, such as a crying baby or responding to sleep apnea (a sleep disorder when breathing stops and starts while sleeping). Your sleep clock may be used to that time, similar to when your muscles (“muscle memory”) can perform dance moves memorized years before.
  • Blue light is the melatonin-suppressing light wavelength produced by the sun and electronics. Human brains recognize this as daytime light, so when we see it, it disrupts our natural clock.
  • Age. According to Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, both the quantity and quality of our sleep changes as we age, impacting our deepest sleep stages the most. He explained on NPR’s Fresh Air, “By the time you’re in your 50s, you’ve perhaps lost almost 40 to 50 percent of that deep sleep that you were having, for example, when you were a teenager. By age 70, you may have lost almost 90 percent of that deep sleep.” 
  • Busy lifestyles. For many people, getting into bed represents the first time of the day  affording “alone time” for thinking and processing what’s happened over the course of the day. Often this comes with stress, high emotions and anxiety. 
  • Caffeine hides the adenosine receptors in the brain, which is why you feel so alert and awake after drinking a cup of coffee. Sometimes, this can take place more than 10 hours after consuming a cup. 
  • Medications such as antidepressants, beta blockers, corticosteroids and even certain over-the-counter cold medicines can interfere with nightly rest.

Inadequate sleep could also be related to life changes (retirement, new home), metabolism, illness or environmental factors (e.g., a street light outside your window).

Is it a normal to wake up in the middle of the night?

Waking up in the middle of the night is not only common, but normal. Most people wake up several times and don’t even notice. Four to five sleep stages take place while you sleep, each lasting 90 to 120 minutes each. During the first half of the night, there is a higher amount of NREM sleep, while the second half of the night usually has an increased percentage of REM sleep. It could be that you shift into light sleep as you wake up, commonly at around 3am. This is potentially why you keep waking up a 3am, almost to the minute.

While waking up once or more is normal, it becomes a problem when you can’t fall back asleep. Not getting a good night’s rest is linked to increased risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes

When sleep disruption leads to sleep deprivation and your work performance, concentration or memory is impacted, it’s time to see an expert. This could be a sign of a sleeping disorder such as sleep apnea, insomnia or something else. Your primary care doctor can help you find the right sleep expert. 

How to fall asleep and stay asleep

How do you fall asleep and stay asleep? If you keep waking up at 3am, the most important first step in falling back asleep is to “normalize” the idea of waking up in the middle of the night. Getting stressed or panicked about waking up and then not being able to fall back asleep because your body is awake (and in what’s called “fight-or-flight mode”) becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. When you decide that it’s OK to wake up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., you can focus on a few other tricks that can help you get back to sleep more quickly:

  • Give yourself 20 minutes to fall back asleep. 
  • Try relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing, meditation and/or counting forwards; (there’s an anticipation in counting backwards to get to the goal of zero, whereas counting forwards can become endless and therefore is boring enough to put you to sleep). There are many apps that can walk you through a meditation like a yoga nidra or a calm story. You can also meditate by imagining every detail of a relaxing place, such as your childhood bedroom. 
  • Get out of bed. This is referred to as “stimulus control.” The brain is associative, and if you’re in bed and awake, you can become conditioned to lying down but not sleeping. To avoid this, get out of bed, leave the lights on dim and read something boring or do a meditation sitting in a chair but avoid technology.
  • Make the room cooler. Humans sleep best in temperatures between 65 and 68 degrees because our bodies need to drop their temperatures to initiate sleep. 

Tips to improve your sleep

Establishing consistent behaviors around your bedtime, sometimes referred to as your sleep ritual or “sleep hygiene”, is key. Humans are creatures of habit, after all. 

  • Establish a regular time for bed and waking up.
  • Restrict the bedroom for sleep and sex.
  • Make sure your room is set for an optimal night’s rest. Is the room too warm? Is there too much outside light or noise coming in? Are the clothes and sheets you sleep in help you stay comfortable throughout the night? 
  • Establish a pre-sleep ritual: give yourself 30-60 minutes to prepare for bed. Phones now enable “sleep mode” that silence your phone at a specific time to assist in this. 
  • Avoid the following:

    • Napping longer than 45 minutes once a day (or avoid them entirely if on days you nap you suffer from a poor night’s sleep; napping is beneficial for some individuals, but not for everyone).

    • Bright light (including blue light, such as the TV or your cellphone) within an hour before bed. Once the sun sets, turn off overhead lights and only use lighting that helps you move around. 

    • Caffeine 8-12 hours before bed (it may work for you to drink caffeine earlier in the day).

    • Heavy, spicy or sugary foods 4-6 hours before bed. Good bedtime snacks are a small amount of complex carbohydrates and a protein, such as toast with peanut butter. 

Key takeaways

If you’re asking yourself, “Why do I keep waking up at 3am?,” know that waking up in the middle of the night is absolutely normal. If it’s preventing you from feeling well rested and performing at your best, establishing a consistent sleep routine — both at night and in the morning — can help you avoid the early morning wake-up. Finding ways to de-stress throughout the day from work demands, social commitments, health problems and family dynamics can be a challenge, but there are tools to help. See: 7 Ways To Reduce Stress (and Keep Blood Pressure Down).

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