Why waking up in the middle of the night isn’t always the bad thing you think it is

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 38-year-old freelance writer learns why waking up during the middle of the night isn’t necessarily something to worry about.

A little about me:

Age: 38

Occupation: freelance writer

Number of hours sleep you get each night: 6.5-8.5 hours

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: 8-9 hours

Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems (insomnia/sleep apnea): no

Do you grind your teeth/have nightmares: no, but I sometimes have night sweats – usually around the time I get PMS.

How much water you drink on average per day: usually around 1 litre (which I know isn’t enough!)

How much caffeine do you drink on average per day: 3-4 cups of tea

How much exercise do you do on average per week: 2-3 45-minute spin classes

Day 1

As I get into bed I realise that, once again, I haven’t prepared myself very well for a good night’s sleep. I’ve eaten a lot of sugar this weekend (rounding off with half a bar of Green & Black’s chocolate after supper), drunk too much tea and not enough water and done no exercise.

I usually read for half an hour before I go to sleep but tonight I watch an episode of Search Party on my iPad in bed. I then brush my teeth and wash my face, before setting my alarm for 6.55am just before 10pm. I put on my eye mask and switch off the lights, but find it difficult to switch off and lie there listening to my husband snore, worrying that I’m not going to sleep well and be tired again tomorrow.

I wake up once during the night (at 2.05am) and go to the loo. I then realise I’m very thirsty so finish the glass of water by my bed before going back to sleep.

I fall asleep pretty quickly and only wake when my alarm sounds. Despite my worries I had a good night’s sleep, but still feel pretty tired.  

“I put on my eye mask and switch off the lights, but find it difficult to switch off.”

Day 2

In a bid to have a good night’s sleep, I decide to spend my evening doing everything by the book sleep-wise. I read somewhere that eating by candlelight can help you to winddown so we eat dinner surrounded by candles, which is actually pretty lovely.

I leave my phone on the side while we eat so I won’t be tempted to check and answer any messages, and make sure not to eat any chocolate after supper. Instead, I only have one small cup of herbal tea, followed by a long bath.

I read my book until 9.50pm, when my eyes start to close. I fall asleep straight away, and while I wake up a couple of times in the night, I fall straight back to sleep.

I wake up at 6.30am before my alarm, and feel better rested than I have in ages. 

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Day 3

I have dinner with a couple of girlfriends, which means I don’t get into bed until 10.45pm. My tummy feels uncomfortable after a lot of spicy Thai food and non-alcoholic beer, and I’m anxious about a work project that came in earlier today.

I put on my eye mask and try to listen to a ‘sleepcast’ on the meditation app Headspace, but can’t stop fretting about work. It takes me ages to fall asleep.

I wake up several times during the night, first at 2.16am and then again some time after 3am. After the second time I get up to go to the bathroom and drink some water, but my mind is immediately active, stressing about the email I need to send in the morning and the fact that I’m probably going to be really tired.

I wake up early at 6am and can’t get back to sleep, so make myself a cup of tea and do some work before the children get up. I feel exhausted as I get them ready for school. 

“I get up to go to the bathroom and drink some water, but my mind is immediately active.”

Day 4

It isn’t a notable evening in terms of sleep preparation. I have some pasta and watch a bit of TV with my husband. I haven’t drunk much caffeine today (only two cups of tea), but I’m tired from my unsettled night last night and the spin class I did this morning.

As I’m brushing my teeth I start to feel anxious about work again, but my husband notices and asks if I’m OK. We chat things through and it helps, and I end up feeling peaceful and present as I finish getting ready for bed. Once I’m in bed, I fall asleep straight away.

I only wake up once during the night at 4.50am when my daughter comes in to tell me she thinks there are ghosts in her bedroom. I reassure her, settle her back into bed and wait for her to go to sleep.

By the time I get back to my own bed I’m really cold and pretty awake. I put some socks on, pull a blanket over our bed and tell myself it’s time to go back to sleep.

I fall asleep again and am woken by my alarm at 6.55am. I feel so grateful that I managed to get back to sleep and had lots of energy for the school run. 

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Day 5

We go out for dinner with friends, and while I don’t drink any alcohol, we get home late. I have a quick bath to warm myself up and then jump into bed as it’s midnight.

I try not to worry about the fact that I’m going to be tired in the morning as it was a really nice evening so definitely worth it. I go to sleep straight away without having to listen to anything.

I’m woken by my alarm at 6.55am. I usually get out of bed straight away but today I don’t – instead, I bury myself under the duvet until my husband’s alarm goes off 10 minutes later.

The school run is a struggle. I don’t leave enough time so have to get the children ready in a rush and my lack of sleep makes me tetchy and impatient as I hustle them into their clothes.

We have friends coming over after school so I make a plan to have a sneaky 30-minute nap at lunchtime. 

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “It is perfectly normal to wake during the night – if we didn’t do this we would probably be extinct as a species, as scientists believe we developed to wake like this to check that we were safe in our caves and not going to be attacked by predators.

“So many people worry about waking up during the night as you do, and understandably so – you need the energy for your busy life with two young children and demanding work. However, the problem lies not in the waking but in the behaviours people adopt when they wake up, which then keep them awake.

“For example, checking the time and looking at your phone just brings you into a more wakeful state, making it harder to then ‘climb’ back down into sleep.”

Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Dr Nerina continues: “Additionally, you wake and fret about not getting enough sleep or getting back to sleep. Do you know that it is possible to think you are awake but to actually be more asleep than you think? This can be reassuring because you might be getting more sleep than you think you are. You could even be sleeping your way to the bathroom and back at night – this is normal!

“The bottom line is that you need to stop fretting about the hours of sleep you’re getting and do the things you know help you sleep – less caffeine, more hydration, better wind down routines and less time on your devices. In fact, you need to look at my five non-negotiables for a good night’s sleep for a reminder.”

If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email [email protected] with your age, using ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Other images: Getty

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