When you think of a perfect night of sleep, do you imagine 8 hours of uninterrupted, almost dead-like sleep? For most, this sounds like a heavenly dream. But in reality, this is something of a rarity. In fact, it’s more common, and actually more natural, for humans to rouse multiple times per night. But why do we wake up at night, what’s a healthy number of awakenings, and how can we wake up fewer times? Let’s explore.
Why do we wake up in between sleep cycles?
Sleep scientists have spent decades studying the concept of a ‘normal’ sleep routine. The results vary, particularly depending on different cultures and daily routines.
The advent of the electroencephalogram (EEG) in the 1920s enabled scientists to learn that the brain doesn’t just ‘turn off’ during sleep. It actually goes through several cycles of activity including pre-rapid eye movement and rapid eye movement (REM) stages, influenced by the release of hormones that aid in physical rest and recovery as well as dreaming. Psychologists attribute this to the mind’s efforts to categorize and process daily experiences and stimuli.
These cycles can vary among individuals but are considered critical to achieving restful sleep.
What’s a normal number of awakenings per night?
A National Institutes of Health study that found no statistical differences among gender in average frequency of awakenings. However, they did find that older individuals commonly awoke more frequently. In fact, the average number of awakenings hovers around six times per night. As the body cycles through various stages of sleep, including deep sleep and REM sleep, it dips from shallower to deeper states.
During the shallow stages of sleep, individuals often regain consciousness or at least become more aware of their environment, before drifting back into a deeper state of sleep as the cycle repeats itself. These awakenings can be exacerbated by outside factors like noise, artificial light, a partner moving, or other causes. Combating such outside stimulus by creating a cool, dark and quiet bedroom can help minimize these interruptions and figure out how to get more deep sleep.
The standard sleep cycle includes regular awakenings. But individuals suffering from stress due to physical or mental conditions can experience more frequent disruptions to their natural sleep cycle.
Tips for waking up fewer times at night
A key technique in dealing with sleep interruptions is to avoid over-stimulation when getting close to bedtime. Meditating, reading a paperback book, putting on a sleep mask or trying some breathing exercises can narrow one’s focus around bedtime. These activities also allow the mind and body to stay calm and relaxed, to better facilitate a return to a sleepy state.
Some awakenings simply satisfy the urge for a bathroom break or a body repositioning. But ongoing frequent awakenings are best left to your doctor or health care professional to diagnose and treat. They could be symptoms of a more serious issue like insomnia or sleep apnea.