How Can I Stop Waking Up At 3 AM?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In our fast-paced world, a restful night’s sleep can sometimes feel like a luxury rather than a necessity. Waking up in the early morning hours, such as at 3:00 AM, and having difficulty going back to sleep is a common issue that can greatly affect a person’s overall well-being.  

This disturbance in sleep, known as sleep maintenance insomnia, can be linked to a variety of causes like aging, stress, caffeine intake, and irregular sleep schedules. However, with an understanding of our body’s sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythm, and adopting suitable strategies, it’s possible to regain control of your sleep and find ways to wake up with refreshed energy. 

Is waking up in the middle of the night affecting your happiness?

The sleep-wake cycle

The sleep-wake cycle is a fundamental biological process that governs when we feel alert and when we feel tired. It is influenced by external factors such as light and darkness, as well as internal factors like hormones and body temperature. The cycle typically follows a 24-hour period (known as the circadian rhythm) and is divided into two main stages: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

During the day, our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol, which helps us feel awake and alert. As daylight fades, the production of cortisol decreases and the hormone melatonin begins to rise, signaling to our body that it’s time to sleep. Throughout the night, we cycle between stages of NREM and REM sleep, each serving different restorative functions for the body and brain.

Circadian rhythm

The circadian rhythm, often referred to as our “body clock,” is an internal system that controls sleepiness and wakefulness over a 24-hour period. It is largely influenced by light exposure.

When it’s dark, our brains receive a signal to release melatonin, making us feel sleepy. Conversely, when light is detected (particularly blue light like that from the morning sun or electronic devices), melatonin production is suppressed, and we feel more awake.

This rhythm affects not only sleep but also body temperature, hormone levels, digestion, and other important bodily functions. It is why we naturally feel sleepy at night and awake during the day. However, factors such as aging, irregular sleep schedules, shift work, and exposure to artificial light can disrupt our circadian rhythm, leading to sleep disorders and other health problems. 

Regularly waking up at 3:00 AM could be a sign that your circadian rhythm is out of sync. Strategies to realign this rhythm, such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and controlling light exposure, can help improve sleep quality and duration.

Why you might be waking up

Several factors can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. Here’s a deeper look at some of the common causes.

  • Aging: As we age, our sleep patterns naturally change. Older adults often experience a phase shift in their circadian rhythm that leads them to feel tired earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning. Additionally, aging is often associated with lighter, more fragmented sleep. This means you are more likely to be awakened by noises or other disturbances during the night.
  • Insomnia and Other Sleep Disorders: Sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome can contribute to regular nighttime awakenings. Insomnia, characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, often results in frequent wakeups. Sleep apnea, a disorder where breathing periodically stops and starts during sleep, can cause you to wake up gasping for air. Restless leg syndrome causes unpleasant sensations in the legs that can also disrupt sleep.
  • Caffeine: Consuming caffeine, a natural stimulant found in coffee, tea, and many soft drinks, can greatly affect your sleep. Its effects can last up to eight hours, so consuming it late in the day can prevent you from falling asleep or cause you to wake up during the night.
  • Stress: Stress and anxiety can have a significant impact on your sleep. When you’re stressed, your body produces hormones like cortisol, which can keep you alert and awake. High levels of stress can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, often causing you to wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning.
  • Sleep patterns: People who nap during the day may have difficulty sleeping through the night. Sleep disruptions can also occur when people do not stick to a consistent sleep schedule. 

Understanding the potential reasons behind your nighttime awakenings is the first step toward finding effective solutions. If your sleep disruptions persist or severely impact your quality of life, it might be time to seek professional help, such as a sleep specialist or a therapist.

Getty/Halfpoint Images

How to stop waking up

Now that we have identified possible causes for your nocturnal disruptions, let’s look at some of the strategies you can employ to enjoy more restful, uninterrupted sleep.

  • Limit blue light: The blue light emitted by your smartphone, tablet, or computer can interfere with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, making it difficult for you to fall asleep and stay asleep. Try to limit your exposure to screens in the evening and consider using a blue light filter if you must use a device close to bedtime.
  • Reduce caffeine: As mentioned earlier, the stimulating effects of caffeine can last for several hours, potentially causing sleep disturbances. If you’re having trouble sleeping, consider reducing your caffeine intake, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime. There is some evidence that older adults may be more affected by caffeine intake than their younger counterparts when it comes to sleep.
  • Reduce fluid intake: Drinking lots of fluids before bed can result in frequent trips to the bathroom during the night, disrupting your sleep. Try to limit your fluid intake in the evening to prevent this.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness practices, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, can help to calm your mind and body, preparing you for a good night’s sleep. Employing mindfulness strategies can reduce stress and anxiety, common culprits behind sleep disruptions.
  • Prepare your bedroom for sleep: Your sleep environment can significantly impact the quality of your sleep. Ensure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool. Use blackout curtains or an eye mask to block light, a white noise machine or earplugs to block noise, and keep the room temperature comfortable. Also, ensure you have a comfortable mattress and pillows to support quality sleep.

Remember, everyone’s body and sleep patterns are different. What works for one person might not work for another. It can be helpful to experiment with different strategies to find what works best for you. If these strategies are not effective, consider seeking professional help.

How online therapy can benefit sleep

Online therapy is proving to be a game-changer in the field of sleep disorders. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), a specialized form of therapy that helps individuals alter thought patterns and behaviors that prevent them from sleeping well, is particularly effective. 

Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp are available to anyone, anywhere, breaking down geographical barriers to quality treatment. Through video sessions, a trained therapist can guide you through various strategies designed to improve sleep. These may include relaxation techniques, stimulus control (associating the bed and bedroom with sleep and sex only), sleep restriction (limiting the amount of time spent in bed), and cognitive therapy (addressing the anxieties and misconceptions about sleep).

In addition to this, online therapy platforms often come with additional resources, such as educational materials about sleep and its disorders, tools for tracking sleep and identifying patterns or triggers, and exercises for managing stress and anxiety. This comprehensive approach to treatment not only addresses the immediate issue of disrupted sleep but also equips individuals with the knowledge and skills to manage their sleep health in the long term.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Is waking up in the middle of the night affecting your happiness?

The efficacy of online therapy

Research has shown that online therapy, particularly CBT-I, can be as effective as in-person therapy for improving sleep. Studies indicate significant improvements in sleep efficiency, total sleep time, and reductions in nighttime awakenings. The comfort and convenience of online therapy can make it easier to commit to the process and apply learned strategies consistently, improving the chances of long-term success.


Waking up in the middle of the night can be frustrating, but understanding potential causes and implementing targeted strategies can improve your sleep quality. If you find yourself struggling, consider reaching out to an online therapist who specializes in sleep issues. They can provide evidence-based strategies tailored to your specific needs, supporting you on your journey toward a good night’s rest. With platforms such as BetterHelp, you can be matched with an online therapist in as little as 48 hours.
Learn the impacts of sleep deprivation
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started