You wake up in the middle of the night, relieved it’s only 3 a.m. and that you still have a few hours of solid shut-eye before you have to get up. Only, you can’t fall back to sleep. So what’s your solution? Here are seven strategies you can use to drift back into dreamland—fast.
1. Turn on as few lights as possible.
Don’t flick every switch on your way to the bathroom. “Light is stimulating because our brains and bodies interpret any light—whether it comes from the sun or a lamp—as a signal to be alert,” says W. Christopher Winter, MD, director of the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center. So you should do your best to avoid it by only turning on the lights you absolutely need. Finding your way in the dark is best, but using a small lamp for just a few minutes won’t set you back much. “The brighter the light and the longer you’re exposed to it, the more alerting it will be,” Winter says.
2. Read to make your eyes tired.
Remember fighting to stay awake during reading assignments in school? Take a cue from college: If you’re struggling to fall back asleep, thumb through a nearby book or magazine, suggests Winter. But try to avoid an exciting thriller that gets your heart racing—it will stimulate instead of sedate you. Again, make sure to keep your light exposure to a minimum. Winter recommends attaching a small reading light to your book.
3. Use your brain.
If you want to occupy yourself instead of just tossing and turning, forego using your phone, tablet, TV, or computer. “Electronic devices emit light that can keep you up—especially the ones you hold closer to your face, like a mobile device,” says Winter. Instead, perform a mental exercise: For example, cyclists could imagine prepping a bike for a ride, step by step.
4. Stay on your back.
Or your side or stomach—whichever position you prefer. Just don’t keep fumbling around. If you stand or sit up straight for long periods of time, your body is more likely to interpret that as a reason to stay awake, suggests Winter. If you’re going to keep busy while you’re up, make sure you’re lying down.
5. Don’t eat anything.
You might think having a bite to eat could put you back to sleep, but midnight munching actually hurts your chances of dozing off again, Winter says. In fact, a mid-slumber snack could trigger more sleep interruptions in the future. “You can easily start to condition your brain and body to expect food at that time of night, which can reinforce the habit of waking up,” says Winter. If you absolutely need to nosh, go ahead, but try to channel your strongest sense of willpower to resist your stomach rumbles. It will help to keep from establishing a standing date with your refrigerator.
6. Try progressive relaxation.
It’s a technique developed by physicians to reduce muscle tension by focusing on releasing one specific muscle group at a time. “Relaxing your body can also relax your mind,” says Winter. Holding tension in your muscles signals to your brain that it needs to remain alert. Consciously reducing stress in your muscles, on the other hand, signals that it’s time to fall asleep. Taking long, deep breaths, begin with your largest muscles groups—like your thighs and back—and slowly work your way to smaller muscles in your hands and face.
7. Don’t make up the sleep you missed.
If you’re extra tired after falling short on rest, it’s important not to sleep in or take a nap the next day. “You essentially want to penalize your brain to avoid this happening regularly,” says Winter. If you indulge yourself in a few extra hits of the snooze button or a long mid-afternoon siesta, you’re just creating a template for your brain and body to stay awake in the middle of the night.