You’ve been sleeping, but your eyes are open.
You’re wide awake.
But wait, it’s still dark outside? What time is it…?
If this has been you lately, you’re not alone.
Many people struggle with waking up at 3am – myself included.
But why does it happen? Is there something wrong with you? Is this a fabled “witching hour”?
I was curious, and dove into researching all the possible reasons. And I’ve collated them all below.
If you’re not afraid of spoilers, here’s the quick answer:
Why You Wake Up At 3am – Summary
Finding yourself awake at 3am can from a number of reasons. Including cravings for the bathroom, food, or even nicotine. Due to a biphasic (2 part) sleeping pattern, menopause, blood sugar, or even just bad sleeping habits. Each of which can be addressed separately.
Below I’ve covered each possible cause, and some tips on how to help.
Ready? Then let’s dive in.
5 Reasons Why You’re Waking Up At 3am
First, it’s important to note that we all wake up in the middle of the night. You may have heard we all sleep in 90 minute cycles. We often lightly wake up between the start and end of these cycles, but we rarely remember it.
In your case, you may just be getting a small nudge awake at the end of a sleep cycle (which can be fixed).
The point here is you’re probably not getting pulled out of a deep sleep – it may only take a small nudge when you’re at the lighter points of that chart. The good news is that this is much less damaging to your sleep than being forced awake mid-cycle. It also means you’re not alone, and you can probably fix this.
Let’s dive into the reasons.
We’ve all woken up because our body needs something more than it needs sleep.
Whether that’s a cough, a visit to the bathroom, or even a drink of water – it’s not uncommon for our own bodies to wake us up.
This is especially true between sleep cycles, when we may even wake up a few times.
If you tend to wake up with an urgent need for something, this is probably what’s waking you up. Here’s some advice on how to help each one.
Let’s start with the trickiest one.
Needing a trip to the bathroom affects us all. This tends to get more common as we get older. The elderly in particular often find they may need multiple trips during the night.
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot we can do here. Other than making sure we ‘go’ before bed and limiting the liquids we drink in the evening.
One way to help is installing sleep-friendly lighting. Most bathrooms have blindingly bright lights in them. To help, you could install dimmer lighting that won’t wake you up as much. Please only do this if you’re confident in your movements. Bathroom trips in the night are the cause of many accidents.
Waking up hungry is a nightmare. It forces you to choose between getting yourself up and fixing yourself something to eat, or lying there starving thinking about food.
Try to incorporate a light snack before bed. Even something like a yoghurt or glass or milk can help see you through until morning. Try to avoid a lot of sugar, and don’t eat a lot (or it’ll wake you up).
Nicotine (& Other Drugs)
Yes, outside of literally causing cancer, brown teeth, and bad smells, there’s yet another reason not to smoke.
Smokers tend to have horrible sleep.
If you’re someone who likes to have a cigarette in the morning, I can assure you that your body often chooses nicotine over sleep. Which is a terrible thing – you’ll often be underslept, irritable, and generally just not your best self.
In heavy smokers, cravings for nicotine are as strong (if not stronger) than cravings for food.
Unfortunately, the only way to truly solve this is to drop the habit. There are plenty of better resources to help you do this online, like X and Y. Though I do guess you could always sleep wearing a nicotine patch. (Though it won’t be long until your sleep is ruined by the horrible long term effects of smoking – please don’t do it.)
Ah, the big one.
Stress affects us in so many ways.
Even if we think we’re handling a stressful period well, it tends to have a way of springing a few leaks in our lives. Mostly when we least expect them.
Waking up at night may be because of stress. Of course, there’s not much we can do about the daytime challenges right now. (Though if you’re have thoughts about it them, it’s best to write these down to get them ‘out’ of your head.)
Aside from actually solving the problems, the best solution to stress and sleep is actually through meditation. Which is proven to help reduce stress and increase the ease of sleep, and sleep quality.
Personally, I love using the Headspace app. They even have sleep-focused meditations. Including quick ones for anyone stuck awake at 3am, and longer ‘stories’ for those trying to sleep.
Otherwise try to simply acknowledge that what’s happening could be stressful. Remind yourself you’re smart and capable, and write down any thoughts/ideas to tackle things tomorrow. Then savor the opportunity to rest up now. You got this.
Myths on Why You’re Waking Up At 3am
I wanted to cover some “myths” that people might tell you on this topic. This could be advice from friends and family, but I’ve even seen them spread on other sleep blogs.
As well as being wrong, these things are also uncontrollable. They only serve to make you worry, especially since you can’t do anything about them. I want to dispel these for you, so you can focus on proven reasons why you might be waking up.
Biphasic Sleep Pattern
“Did you know humans haven’t always slept in one big chunk? Back in the caveman era, everyone used to wake up in the middle of the night to chat or party. Maybe you’re just like them!”
You may have heard this around, but it’s just not true.
In his book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker fully researched this topic. He found that it’s true that, at some point in the Victorian era, people forced themselves awake for early morning parties. But otherwise, humans have never naturally woken up in the middle of the night unless by accident.
I’m not sure why or where this myth came from, but it’s definitely not been proven. So don’t worry, you’re not getting in sync with your caveman/woman self. Ooga booga!
‘The Witching Hour’
Many spiritualists call various hours in the night witching hours. This can be when the “veil between our world and the next is at it’s weakest”. Or some other spooky sounding myth.
There’s no proof of this beyond a quote from your local tarot card reader. There’s nothing reaching through the void just to disturb your sleep, don’t worry.
Plus, I find it hard to believe that these “other worlds” conveniently operate on the same worldwide timezones that we do!
Some also claim that the Bible may have meaning behind waking up at 3am.
While there are events where people are woken up during the night, I don’t believe they had ways of telling the time back then! It would be suspiciously specific that everyone knew it was 3am that they woke up.
The number 3 is prevalent in the Bible, but this would just be a coincidence. It’s not related to sleep or waking up. Instead, the number 3 biblically represents divine wholeness, completeness and perfection.
So, again, don’t worry on this one.
The Do’s & Don’ts of Getting Back to Sleep at 3am
Sometimes, waking up in the middle of the night just happens.
For those cases, it’s important to know how best to help yourself get back to sleep. Here’s some best practices.
- Write down any thoughts / ideas. While it’s a weird time to be awake, this can also be an enlightening one. You’ve just slept some and there’s nothing else to distract you – so your brain might think of a few genius ideas. If so, write these down. This helps to a) not forget them in the morning and b) not get caught up on them, because you know you’ve saved them for later.
- Get up. Give yourself around 15 minutes to fall back asleep. After that, it’s important to get up and out of bed. Getting up means you can do some of your night-time routine all over again, triggering your brain that it’s time to sleep.
- Make your bed. It’s always more inviting to get back into a made bed. Take a minute and put your bed back together, and it’ll help you feel like your going back to bed to sleep, not a reminder that you were lying there awake.
- Do something relaxing. Once you’re up, try to do something quiet like read a book or do a puzzle. Don’t use any digital screens or do anything exciting that could wake you up.
- Keep the lights low. Remember that bright lights are a signal to wake up. Keep the lights dim where possible.
- Eat / Drink. If you’re hungry or thirsty, have a light snack. You don’t want to be stuck awake with hunger. (Something small like yoghurt or a glass of milk is ideal.)
- Repeat Routine. When you start to feel tired, try to repeat anything you typically do at night. Whether that tidying up a little, reading a book in bed, whatever (as long as it avoids looking at a bright screen).
- If you have a helpful partner (or even if you don’t), orgasms are proven to be a helpful sleep aid, too. Just saying!
- Watch the clock. This’ll only make you anxious about being up at this time and what that means. In general, don’t sleep where you can see a clock.
- Lay in thought. For any night-time worries, write them down with a pen and paper and make a deal with yourself: you’ll tackle them tomorrow. This is the only way to ‘satisfy’ and anxious mind.
- Spend tons of time in bed. Our brains are very connected to our environments. Someone who only uses their bedroom for sleeping finds it much easier to fall asleep quickly there. If you’re always in your bed to watch TV, go on your laptop, etc? Then it’s hard for your brain to know when it’s time to sleep vs time to be awake.
- Overthink things. At the end of the day, by even looking this up you may be overthinking it! Just like with the night-time worries tip, try to write down what worries you so you can tackle it tomorrow. Try to be grateful that all you need to do is chill-out, get cosy, and relax. Everything’s going to be okay, and you’re going to nail it tomorrow.
Waking up in the middle of the night can be a real nightmare. Pun intended.
Not only can it be troublesome getting back to sleep, but it can be it’s own reason to over-think and worry about things.
I hope this quick article has given you some clarity. Both about why you might be waking up, and what to do about it.
If you’d like to learn more, please do check out the related articles below! I produce all this content for free, and truly appreciate you taking the time to read it.
So thanks for reading. And rest well.