How to get back to sleep if you struggle in the middle of the night

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I think the quality of your sleep is probably one of the biggest factors in how well you feel on a daily basis, and how successful you might be in achieving the goals or change you might want to achieve. A lack of sleep can really impact your mood, concentration, motivation, healing, ability to get things done and even life expectancy.

For me (and probably every other parent on the planet), having kids made it so much harder for me to get a good night’s sleep.

If this is the case, the first priority is to work on sleep training so they are able to sleep through the night. My kids have all been pretty good at this, but we still go through phases where the littlest one is waking up too early (the moon clock is a godsend for this), or one (or more) of them is poorly and waking up in the night, or another one has a nightmare, etc.

Any time I woke up to deal with them, I really struggled to get back to sleep. I’d lie there while everyone else went back to sleep (including the child that woke me up to start with!). My mind would be racing and then I’d get frustrated the longer it went on (which didn’t do anything to help!).

I’d finally get back to sleep only to be woken up very soon after by the alarm, and feeling very grumpy, which my husband can attest to. He will quite often get up to deal with whichever child has woken up if he hears them before I do, but he very luckily can just get straight back to sleep! Even then, him getting up could be enough to wake me up and I’d still be the one lying there struggling to get back to sleep.

But after about 10 years of this, I finally found a way to make sure I sleep enough almost every night and feel well rested for the next day.

If you’re struggling to get back to sleep if you wake in the night, I’d recommend really working on this technique to see if it can help you too. 

How mindfulness can help you get back to sleep

The big revelation for me was mindfulness. My husband heard a lecture through work about mindfulness and thought it could be something that might help me. During those nights when I’d been woken up, I started to practice some calmer breathing, focusing on relaxing my body, and then counting back from 100. This has really changed my experience of sleep and I am able to go back to sleep so much faster than before, without frustration and I now feel more rested.

On the handful of occasions it proves tricky. I might find myself counting back, forgetting I’m counting, going back to whatever I was thinking about and then realising several minutes later and trying again. When this happens, I just have to keep starting again. Perseverance (almost) always works.

My theory on why this works is that when your mind is racing you can’t possibly go back to sleep once you’ve been disturbed. But by focusing on things that are not thoughts (like breathing, counting etc.) you calm your mind so it can go back into sleep. Instead of conditioning your body for stress, you’re conditioning it to relax, which is much more conducive to sleep.

If you have issues sleeping well, I’d definitely recommend looking into how you might be able to use mindfulness to help you sleep better.

Steps you can take to get to the land of nod

You can experiment with one or more of these steps, switch the order up, adapt them to be your own, read more about mindfulness to test more approaches… Anything that helps you find the approach that works best for you.

Step 1: Do a body scan. Slow your breathing. Focus on the weight of your body on the bed. Then start from the top of your head and slowly think about each part as you scan down  your body (head, eyes, chin, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, stomach and so on), relaxing each part of your body as you go.

Step 2: Once your body is relaxed, start to focus on your breath. Count your breath with one in, two out, three in, four out until you get to 10 and then start again (this is the way the well-known founder of the Headspace app Andy Puddicombe does it). Make sure you voice is low and sleepy sounding (a recommendation from Paul McKenna in his Get the Life You Want seminar).

Step 3: Or you can start counting backwards from 100, or back in twos from 200.

Step 4: Any time you feel your mind wandering or you lose count, once you realise it, don’t start to feel frustrated but instead let the thought pass, remind yourself to come back to your breath and then very calmly just start to count again. This is the hardest part when you’re starting. You’re so used to letting your thoughts rule and not controlling them. But it does become easier. You have to persevere. Just keep trying and it will get easier and easier.

Step 5: Repeat until you fall asleep, continually pulling your mind away from thoughts and back into relaxing and counting.

Other things that can help you get a good night’s sleep:

  • Go to bed regularly at a good time – that’s 10pm for me
  • Get outside daily and try and get as much sunshine as you can (not always easy when you live in the UK!).
  • Avoid blue light. This one’s tough for me… I love to read before going to sleep and now most of my books are on the Kindle app on my iPad as that’s very convenient. I started to go back to paper books at the same time as experimenting with mindfulness, but have since reverted to my iPad (with the orange light setting on – I don’t know if that’s enough to combat the blue light issue) and I’m still sleeping well most nights.
  • Avoid too much alcohol – it means you go straight into a deep sleep and miss a valuable cycle of REM sleep, which is why you often don’t feel rested even if you slept for enough hours.
  • Eat better – take a look at this blog to see some of the changes I made here that mean I feel more rested after less sleep I believe because my body isn’t having to work so hard on digesting poor foods.
  • Make sure you’re exercising – you’re body needs the rest and sleeps better with exercise, but experiment with the timing of it as I found that exercise in the evening actually resulted in worse sleep (probably to do with the adrenaline still pumping around the body)
  • Avoid caffeine after lunch. Unless you metabolise caffeine quickly, don’t have any from lunch time onwards.
  • Clear any mental clutter. If something is bothering you or you don’t feel on top of your lists or plan for tomorrow / the next week, consider spending some time that evening clearing up your lists or noting down things that are bothering you so you can get it off your mind and rest easier.
  • Consider a night time herbal tea that can promote good sleep. Whether it works or not, it’s become a nice ritual for me each night. Obviously don’t have it too late if it’s going to cause you to need to head to the bathroom in the middle of the night! And research first to make sure the herbal ingredients won’t adversely affect any medication you might be on.
  • Consider your body temperature. An interesting fact I heard recently: you can’t sleep if your feet are cold (I always wear socks as my feet area always cold). But you need to keep your room at a good temperature also; not too hot and not too cold.
  • Try a short yoga relaxation routine, with YouTube if you need guidance, right before bed.
  • Try a guided meditation for sleep audio from YouTube with your headphones on. This has worked occasionally for me but I find I prefer to do it myself now.

Once you start getting a better sleep, it can improve so many other areas of your life. 

If you want to eat better and become healthier you’ll find crave less sweet or salty food, and you’ll be in a better frame of mind to focus on better nutrition for your body. You might find more energy to exercise if you’re not already doing so.

You might also start finding time to put a solid morning routine in place, and you’ll feel more focused and motivated during the day to get the important things done. All things that can help you on the path of self improvement.

Good luck and let me know if this helps you get better sleep in the comments below.

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