Falling asleep gets you started, but staying asleep throughout the night is how you achieve the sustained rest that is so important to long-term health and well-being. Restless, interrupted sleep can lead to daytime tiredness and fatigue, diminishes cognitive performance and affects mood.
How much waking is too much?
None of us are “perfect” sleepers: a certain amount of waking during the night is normal and to be expected. In the course of a good night’s sleep, you may sometimes rise to use the bathroom, or wake briefly before returning to sleep, sometimes before even opening your eyes.
More frequent and prolonged awakenings during the night can interfere with both sleep quality and sleep quantity, and reduce overall sleep efficiency. Sleep efficiency is a measurement of how much time you spend asleep relative to the total amount of time you spend in bed. If you spend eight hours in bed, and six hours of that time is spent actually sleeping, your sleep efficiency that night would be 75 percent. Sleep efficiency provides a snapshot of your nightly rest that incorporates several factors.
Along with total sleep time (sleep duration) and the amount of time it takes to fall asleep (sleep onset), how much time you spend awake throughout the course of a night is a critical component of sleep efficiency. Even strong sleepers don’t sleep with perfect efficiency. An excellent night’s rest may include roughly 5 percent wakefulness throughout the night, a sleep efficiency in the range of 95 percent.
Too much wakefulness during the night reduces sleep efficiency, and can undermine the rejuvenating effects of sleep. There are different types of awakenings that commonly interfere with uninterrupted sleep. Understanding the possible causes for nighttime awakenings can help you make adjustments to improve your rest.
What’s waking you?
Waking frequently throughout the night happens to many people. These awakenings may not last long, but they interrupt continuous, restful sleep and can result in daytime fatigue. Sometimes frequent awakenings are caused by disruptions from within your sleep environment. Sudden, unexpected, and unfamiliar noises can easily rouse you from sleep. These noises need not be loud to be disruptive. Too much light in your bedroom is another frequent cause of middle-of-the-night awakenings. A television left on, streetlights shining through an uncovered window, even a too-bright alarm clock can disturb your sleep. Stress is another cause of frequent middle-of-the-night awakenings. Consuming too much caffeine during the day can impede consistent sleep at night, as can a too-heavy consumption of alcohol. Limit caffeine consumption to the morning, and curtail drinking alcohol within four hours of bedtime to avoid restless sleep.
A fragmented night’s sleep
These frequent awakenings can lead to what sleep experts refer to as fragmented sleep. When sleep is fragmented, you can’t proceed normally through sleep cycles. Fragmented sleep results in less time spent in deep sleep and REM sleep, the most physically and mentally restorative stages of sleep. People whose sleep is fragmented spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep, where you’re more likely to be disturbed and awakened. To avoid frequent awakenings, it’s important to tend to your sleep environment to resolve possible disruptions. If you do find yourself waking briefly during the night, stay in bed. If possible, don’t even open your eyes. Relax and let sleep come over you again.
Long nights spent awake
Nighttime awakenings can also be prolonged. These extended periods of sleeplessness in the middle of the night or very early morning can be frustrating and anxiety producing—emotions that only make it harder to return to sleep. Being awake for extended periods of time during the night can significantly diminish sleep duration, leading to daytime tiredness and ongoing sleep deprivation. Stress is a common cause of prolonged middle-of-night wakefulness. Once awake, worrisome thoughts flood the mind and soon it may feel impossible to return to sleep. Simple relaxation and thought-blocking exercises can help calm and clear the mind for a return to sleep. Replace worried thoughts with images of a favorite, relaxing place. Let your mind imagine all the sights, smells, and sounds of a peaceful spot by a lake, or a quiet summer night under the stars. Take any pressure you feel to fall asleep quickly and turn it on its head. This technique, known as paradoxical intention, involves putting your attention on trying to stay awake. Tell yourself rather than needing to sleep you must stay awake. Focus on keeping your eyes open. Reversing your thought patterns can help break the escalating cycle of nighttime worry, and ease you more quickly back to sleep.
Don’t force sleep
At a certain point you may find sleep simply won’t return. At that point, it’s best to get out of bed rather than toss and turn in frustration. Engage in a quiet, soothing activity such as knitting or reading under low light until you feel tired. If you’ve lost sleep during the night to repeated or extended awakenings, resist the temptation to sleep in the next morning. Get up, go about your day, and you’ll be more prepared for a consistently restful night’s sleep when bedtime arrives.