Waking up in the middle of the night — what's normal and when is it a problem?

A woman with dark hair lies awake in bed after waking up in the middle of the night
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you keep waking up in the middle of the night and don't know whether it's normal and what could be causing it, you're not alone. Research shows that night-waking is more common than we might think – in fact, most of us have around two to three noticeable wakeful periods a night. 

We tend to view most nighttime stirrings as a barrier to quality sleep. But is waking up in the middle of the night normal? And how can we tell if it’s becoming a problem? Night-waking is caused by a myriad of reasons – some are cause for concern but many aren’t. And while comfort is key, even sleeping on the best mattress for your body type and sleep needs can’t safeguard night awakenings. 

Here, Dr Chris Winter, neurologist, sleep specialist, and host of the podcast Sleep Unplugged, reveals why night-waking is so common, what's normal and when to be concerned…

Is waking up in the middle of the night normal?

If you’re in bed by 10pm but often awake at midnight and then again at 3am, you’re not alone. “It’s a common misconception that waking during the night is a problem because, in reality, the average adult can rouse from sleep during the night up to 20 times per hour,” says Dr Winter.

“So if you’re waking up a few times during the night, it's actually not that big a deal. It can become a cause for concern when the waking up in itself causes worry and anxiety.”

When is waking up in the middle of the night a problem?

According to Dr Winter, it’s all about understanding your natural sleep pattern to determine whether your night-waking is cause for concern. “Night-waking becomes a problem when there is a sudden change from one's baseline sleep pattern.

“For example, if over a period of a few weeks you have gone from waking once or twice during the night to waking to every 30 minutes, this would be a noticeable change." Dr Winter explains. "If these awakenings are associated with breathing disturbances, pain, repetitive dreams, abrupt movements or dream enactment, those too are causes for concern.” 

So if you feel there’s been significant changes to your usual sleep/wake cycle, or have noticed any concerning symptoms, it’s important to seek medical advice. But there are of course other, more common reasons many of us find ourselves clock-watching at 3am. Let's look at those now...

3 reasons why you're waking up in the middle of the night

A man with dark hair and dressed in a white t-shirt sits on the edge of his bed next to his sleeping wife because he keeps waking up in the middle of the night

(Image credit: Getty Images)

1. You’re stressed out

Feeling stressed or anxious can cause us to wake up in the night, and then, it can become a vicious cycle, as the anxiety about being awake or not getting enough rest and feeling tired the next day can cause us to stay awake for longer. 

“Sleep performance anxiety can be a contributing factor when it comes to being awake during the night, since it can cause feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness,” explains Dr Winter. And of course, these feelings aren’y conducive to a good night’s sleep.

2. Your bedroom is bright, hot and noisy

Outside noise, light pollution, waking up feeling too hot or too cold can all disrupt our natural sleep/wake cycles. This is particularly prevalent in Stage 1 of your sleep cycle, the lightest stage of sleep, when we’re more likely to be disturbed by our environment than during the deeper stages of sleep. 

3. You have aches and pains

“Experiencing physical aches and pains during the night is surprisingly common across the adult population, and can cause us to wake up,” explains Dr Winter. “Pain can be caused by several different factors such as arthritis, spinal problems or musculoskeletal pain. Sleep apnoea, or breathing disturbances, are also common causes of night-waking too.” 

Again, if aches and pains are waking you up at night, or if you’re concerned breathing problems might be disrupting your sleep, it’s important to seek medical advice.

How to stop waking up in the middle of the night and sleep through

1. Ditch daytime naps

If you’ve had a disturbed night’s sleep, don’t try to make up for it during the day with a power-nap, otherwise, you run the risk of disrupting your natural sleep cycle further and not being tired enough by your usual bedtime. Experts agree trying to stick to the same bedtime and wake-up time is the best way to support your body’s natural circadian rhythm and avoid further sleep disruptions.

A man in a blue shirt takes a nap after reading on his brown leather couch

(Image credit: Getty/Morsa Images)

2. Optimize your bedroom for sleep

“Essentially, quiet, cool and dark is always good,” says Dr Winter. Experts suggest the optimum temperature for sleep is around 18 degrees Celsius or 65 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s worth checking your thermostat. 

Black-out blinds or curtains are great at minimising light pollution and thicker fabrics are also helpful in minimising external noise. Failing that, a good quality sleep mask made of a natural, breathable fabric such as silk can help to prevent you waking up due to light disturbances - these are especially useful in the summer months when it gets lighter earlier.

3. Ditch heavy meals before bed

Eating a large, heavy meal before bed can cause bloating, indigestion or heartburn which can all disturb sleep. Research shows leaving three hours between your last meal or snack and bedtime is ideal because it gives your body time to begin digesting food before you sleep.

If eating earlier is difficult, making smart food choices such as lean cuts of meat or fish and fresh or steamed vegetables over fried foods or rich, creamy sauces can all help the digestion process, so you’re not disturbed by trapped wind or indigestion during the night. 

4. Journal your worries

Jotting down any fears, worries or sources of anxiety before you hit the pillow is a useful tool to help you wind down. “But when you do find yourself awake in the night, you could try a little meditation to help you relax – for example, planning a dream holiday or vacation, or replaying a positive experience or somewhere you like to go can help you to stop feeling anxious about being awake.”

5. Understand that night wakings are normal

“We’re supposed to wake up from time to time as we move from one sleep stage to the next, so it’s important to accept it’s going to happen,” explains Dr Winter. “It’s vital we don’t encourage the message that awakenings are bad, dangerous or scary. Instead, it’s important to cultivate a positive and accepting attitude about night waking, because if you’re human, you are going to wake up from time to time.”

Bethan King
Freelance Journalist


Bethan is a freelance journalist, brand consultant and copywriter, specialising in beauty, fashion, wellbeing, and health. She has over 17 years' experience working across print and digital platforms on national weekly, monthly and bi-monthly magazines, including Stylist online, Refinery29, Elle Australia, Grazia Australia, OK!, The Sunday Mirror, The Metro, Stella and Telegraph online, and more. Bethan has a keen interest in sleep and, crucially, how she somehow can get more of it.