8 Things to Try When You Just Can't Fall Back to Sleep

Everyone, at some point, will wake up in the middle of the night and won't be able to fall back asleep. But rather than stare at the clock — and feel tortured — it turns out there are things you can do to help improve your chances of drifting back into dreamland, stat.

When insomnia hits in the middle of the night, try to resist the urge to use a blue light-emitting device like your smartphone, which can make matters worse. (Image: amenic181/iStock/GettyImages)

Here, top sleep experts share the most effective tips to help get your beauty sleep back in check and kick insomnia out of the bedroom for good.

1. Listen to an Adult Bedtime Story.

A favorite strategy from Michelle Drerup, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center, is to listen to boring podcasts or bedtime stories aimed at adults. This is especially helpful, she says, because there is no need to turn on a light or leave the bed. "It will also help rein in your wandering mind and lessen the anxiety that can build in the middle of the night," she adds.

Try the Calm app, which has a deep library of stories and other features meant to help nudge you into shut-eye. Pro tip: Queue up a story before you turn out the light, so it's easily accessible when your eyes pop open at 3 a.m. That way, you can limit the time you spend fumbling around on your phone or tablet, which exposes you to sleep-disrupting blue light (more on that later).

2. Count Sheep — in Reverse.

Don't have access to a podcast? Try the old counting-sheep routine, suggests Susheel Patil, MD, PhD, clinical director and assistant professor of medicine for Johns Hopkins Medicine, who specializes in sleep disorders.

But try this strategy with a twist: Starting at whichever number you choose, count backward in multiples of three. This boring-but-absorbing task may be just the distraction your mind needs to succumb to sleep again.

3. Hit the Bathroom.

Dr. Patil also points out that if your bladder is making you uncomfortable, you should empty it. "Often, patients struggle with the discomfort hoping to fall back asleep," he says. Taking a moment to void, though, will hopefully make it easier to drift off again.

4. Try Meditating.

If it's not a bathroom issue, Dr. Patil recommends practicing a mindfulness routine to help you relax and fall back asleep.

For example, do a meditative 'body scan.' Starting at your head and working toward your toes, use your mind to slowly scan your body, internally instructing each muscle you meet along the way to relax and release any tension. Ideally, you'll be fast asleep before you reach your feet.

5. Practice Deep Breathing.

Another tried-and-true tip to fall back asleep? Practice deep breathing. It stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for activities that occur when our body is at rest, explains Drerup, and it functions oppositely to the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates activities associated with the fight-or-flight response. She recommends trying the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise.

How to Perform the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise:

  • Sit up straight and breathe in silently through your nose to the count of four.
  • Hold your breath to the count of seven.
  • Exhale through your mouth to the count of eight, making an audible "woosh" sound.
  • Repeat the cycle for four breaths, gradually working your way up to eight full cycles.

6. Turn on Some Soothing Tunes.

Another way to help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system is to listen to music. According to the Sleep Foundation, "Music has the power to slow your heart rate and breathing, lower your blood pressure, and it may even trigger your muscles to relax. These biological changes mirror some of the same changes that your body undergoes when you're falling asleep."

7. Get Out of Bed.

If you find yourself awake for more than 20 to 30 minutes, Dr. Patil recommend getting out of bed for a half hour and engaging in mundane activities like folding the laundry or reading in another room before trying to return to bed.

The reasoning? "The idea is for you to go back to bed when you are drowsy, so that your brain associates the bedroom as an acceptable place to be sleeping rather than awake," he explains.

The worst thing is to stay in bed for too long, Dr. Patil says. This often results in spending more time in bed, hoping to fall asleep. "In fact, spending less time in bed may actually be more beneficial over time," he says.

8. Resist the Urge to Reach for Your Phone.

Whatever you do, do not pick up your smartphone to check email, social media or engage in other activities (aside from passively listening to music, a meditation app or the like) on your phone or tablet, warns Drerup.

"Not only is the blue light disruptive to sleep, but electronics tend to be more stimulating and don't help us return back to sleep," she says.

Still Waking Up?

If your middle-of-the-night wake-ups are happening often and having a negative impact on your day-to-day functioning, both Drerup and Dr. Patil recommend speaking to your healthcare provider about your sleep patterns to rule out any potentially serious issues, such as sleep apnea.

"If you notice that this is occurring several times a week for at least a month (acute) or three months (chronic) and you experience worsening symptoms during the day, such as fatigue, increased irritability or moodiness, sleepiness, worsening appetite, poor attention, reduced motivation or worry about sleep, you should bring this up with your physician as it may mean you have a medical disorder," says Dr. Patil.

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