Suddenly roused from a serene sleep, you turn to glance at the clock, only to discover it’s 3 a.m. — the identical time you awoke the previous night, as well as the one before that.

Reasons for waking up in the night

If you’ve experienced this before, it’s because nocturnal awakenings are common. Waking up multiple times during the night is natural and is often attributed to sleep architecture, the stages of sleep cycled through each night.

These awakenings typically last for a few seconds to a few minutes. If they occur too frequently or disrupt falling back asleep, it could indicate an issue. Sleep experts offer insights into potential causes and solutions.

Sleep architecture involves four stages of sleep, cycling every 90 to 120 minutes. Dr. Brandon Peters-Mathews, a neurologist, explains the transition from light to deep sleep, followed by slow-wave sleep and REM sleep. Waking up after REM sleep is common, and restarting the cycle is normal.

Frequent awakenings aren’t usually harmful if one falls back asleep within five to 10 minutes, says Dr. Michelle Drerup, a sleep specialist. However, multiple awakenings within an hour could disrupt deep sleep and signal sleep disorders.

“Due to our consistent bedtime routines and the uniform length of these sleep cycles, it’s common to awaken at the same time during the night,” explained Peters-Mathews. While most of these awakenings are fleeting and easily forgotten, occasionally, we may wake up once or twice during the night and check the time.”

People tend to remember waking up more in the second half of the night, characterized by longer REM stages. Emotional reactions to waking can contribute to insomnia, warns Peters-Mathews.

Circadian rhythm, our internal clock, may also play a role, notes Dr. Cathy Goldstein, a neurologist. Changes in sleep-wake cycles or exposure to light can disrupt it, affecting sleep quality. Age-related changes in sleep architecture can also influence sleep patterns.

Steps to take if you’re unable to return to sleep

Being a night owl or an early bird is partly determined by these cycles, which can clash with work schedules, causing daytime sleepiness. Goldstein suggests maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and managing light exposure to improve sleep quality.

For those struggling to fall back asleep, avoiding clock-checking is crucial, advises Peters-Mathews. Getting out of bed after 15 minutes of wakefulness can prevent associating the bed with wakefulness, recommends Drerup. Optimizing the sleep environment, including minimizing disturbances, is essential for restful sleep, adds Peters-Mathews.

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