Why do I wake up at 3am?

Waking up in the early hours of the morning is part of a normal sleeping pattern. Most of the time, we don’t even notice our nighttime awakenings. But, if you are having difficulty falling asleep after waking up in the middle of the night, you may want to learn more about why you are waking up at 3am and what to do about it.

Is it normal to wake up at 3am?

For many people, waking up in the middle of the night is a frustrating and confusing experience. It seems like there’s nothing wrong with them, but they can’t seem to stop their body from waking them up at an odd time.

They might not be able to fall back asleep for hours after being woken up by their own brain, which makes it even more difficult to get out of bed in the morning.

Stress and anxiety are one of the most common reasons for people to wake up in the middle of the night. This is especially true if you have something playing on your mind which you find difficult to switch off from.

The good news is that waking up during the night doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you; it’s actually quite common.

Everybody experiences stress and anxiety at some point in their lives, which is why everybody wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes.

You might be thinking ‘I’m not stressed, I don’t do anything out of the ordinary; why does this happen to me?’

In truth, nobody knows for sure why waking up in the middle of the night happens to some people more than others.

It could be because you have a different lifestyle to other people; maybe your body clock is a little bit out of sync with the rest of the world.

But there are plenty of methods and strategies available which can help you stay asleep until a reasonable hour in the morning.

Why do I wake up at 3am
Why do I wake up at 3am?

Part of a normal sleep cycle

Waking up in the middle of the night is a normal part of the human sleep cycle. We all wake up at some point during the night. Why do you think that is? In the middle of the night, we have a sleep stage called REM. This is where we have our most vivid dreams and it’s also when we move around the least. During this time, your brain activity is similar to being awake. If you happen to be awake during this time, chances are that you will remember it as a dream even if you weren’t dreaming. It’s also possible that you are awake to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, etc.

Sleep stages

The normal stages of a sleep cycle include:


The transition from waking to sleep (around 5 minutes). This is where your body starts to ‘doze off’ and brain activities start to slow down. Sometimes you may expererience some twitches as your body falls asleep.

Light Sleep

Light sleep is when you are in a relaxed and subdued state.Your body temperature drops and your breathing slows down. Your muscles relax and your heart rate reduces.

The brain produces short bursts of activity during light sleep that can help prevent being woken up by an external stimulus. Stage 2 sleep is the first type of sleep that you have, and it lasts for 10-25 minutes during the first cycle of sleeping. Every cycle of sleep you experience through the night will have longer periods of light sleep, so people usually spend about half their time in light sleep.

Read also: How to be a light sleeper.

Deep sleep

Stage 3 or deep sleep is where you are most deeply asleep. It takes longer to wake someone up if they are in this phase of sleep. In stage 3, the body relaxes and the brain waves have a pattern called delta waves. In deep sleep, experts believe that restorative sleep happens because the body recovers from being tired and grows stronger. Stage 3 might also help your immune system or other parts of your body by giving them time to improve themselves.

In this phase, there is less brain activity but there is evidence that deep sleep helps with insightful thinking, creativity, and memory. We spend more time in deep sleep during the first half of the night during early stages of cycles 1-4. Each stage of deep sleep normallylast for 20-40 minutes

REM sleep

During REM sleep, the brain is more active. The body goes limp, except for the eyes and muscles that control breathing. The eyes can be seen moving quickly and REM – Rapid Eye Movement – stands for this stage of sleep because dreams happen here. Dreams are more vivid because of the increased brain activity, but also less common and intense in other stages of sleep.

Normally, you only enter REM sleep after you have been asleep for at least 90 minutes. As the night goes on, your REM stages get longer, and can last for up to an hour or so. REM generally makes up around a quarter of total sleep.

How many sleep cycles do we experience each night?

The body cycles through the different stages of sleep, normally in 90 to 110 minute blocks. Typically, a person will have 4-6 sleep cycles in an average night.

Sleep cycles and waking up in the middle of the night

If your sleep is disturbed you may not go through the full sleep cycle, and may only achieve lighter stages of sleep. This can happen if you have a medical condition such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or a sleep disorder.

When you are in lighter sleep, you are more likely to wake up. Generally this is seen as short nightime awakenings which do not impact on the overal quality of sleep and which we don’t even tend to remember.

However, if you have trouble falling asleep after night waking then you may need to look more closely at what is causing the problem.

Read also: Is 2 hours sleep better than none?

Theory of Biphasic sleeping and the Suprachiasmatic nucleus

There are many theories about why we wake up in the middle of the night and some scientists believe that human beings evolved to be biphasic sleepers.This means that, just like owls and bears, we may have periods when we sleep for short bursts throughout the day. There is also speculation that these awakenings could be linked to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is a group of cells that plays an important role in regulating our circadian rhythms.

The SCN influences sleep patterns by selectively suppressing certain regions of the brain during the day and other parts at night. Although it does not directly control our wakefulness, it does influence the release of certain neurotransmitters and hormones that make us feel sleepy and help us to maintain our nighttime slumber. The SCN also responds to light, telling the pineal gland not to produce melatonin when it is light out and encouraging its production in darkness. Melatonin helps us get drowsy and regulates our sleep cycles.

It is also possible that the SCN helps to regulate our 3am awakenings. One expert thinks that it may be a safety mechanism that allows us to become more alert if we are ever in danger during the night, although there is no evidence of this as of yet. [3]

It might just be that we are designed to have a ‘first sleep’ and a ‘second sleep’ and that these phases do not fit in with modern life where we have different sleep wake times.

What happens to your body at 3am that causes you to wake up?

In a normal night’s sleep we will wake up and drift off again without even realising it. But, once you add in some stress or anxiety, you may find that you fully wake up and find it difficult to stay asleep.

Around 3 or 4 in the morning, several changes are taking place. Firstly, we have usually had a few hours’ sleep by this time, so our sleep drive is decreasing. Our sleep hormones have peaked and our bodies are starting to release the stress hormone cortisol. This is a natural process and is designed to help our bodies prepare for waking and the day ahead. Our core body temperature also starts to rise at this time.

Without any other factors, we would normally stay asleep. However, if you have any additional feelings of stress or anxiety then you may find that you fully wake at this time and start to worry about the things on your mind – or even start to worry about not sleeping.

Alternatively, some medical issues might wake you at this time, or you may be simply too uncomfortable to stay asleep once your body has started to go inter this lighter sleep phase.

Why do I wake up at 3am?

Now we’ve looked at what happens physically in our bodies at around 3am, it’s worth taking a look at some of the common causes behind waking up at this time.

Stress and anxiety are one of the most common reasons for people to wake up in the middle of the night. This is especially true if you have something playing on your mind which you find difficult to switch off from.

For example, you might be worrying about your work, or your relationship; perhaps you’re having financial problems; a family member might be ill, or a friend going through a tough time.

All of these things are common sources of stress which continue to play on your mind even when you try to switch off. They might not seem like a big deal at first, but they can build up slowly over time and eventually lead to more serious issues.

The more stressed you are, the more frequent and longer your episodes of waking up at 3am might become. This can make it even harder to get back to sleep, which in turn makes you feel more stressed out.

Many people wake up at 3am because they have been woken up at that time before, even if it wasn’t by their own body.

In some cases, this can be caused by external factors such as exposure to artificial light or loud sounds which disrupts their sleep cycle.

Often, though, this kind of ‘stimulus’ occurs as a result of your own thoughts and worries which you can’t switch off from.

You may also find your lifestyle is causing you to wake up during the night. Drinking coffee, alcohol, or sugary drinks in the evening can mess up your normal sleep schedule.

Eating too late at night, or even having low blood sugar, can also cause difficulties with your sleeping patterns.

Getting enough exercise is also important. As well as being great for your mental health, getting outside to exercise can also improve your sleep.

So if you find yourself having trouble sleeping and waking up at exactly the same time every morning, try analysing your day to see what could have caused it.

Medical reasons why you might be waking up at 3am

There are several reasons why people wake up during deep sleep cycles. There are some factors that contribute to how long you sleep for, and if these things don’t work in your favor, then there is nothing you can do to prevent yourself from waking up at 3am. There are a few medical conditions which can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night

• Sleep apnea: Continuous snoring, choking and gasping for air, may indicate that you have sleep apnea. People who have sleep apnea stop breathing regularly for a moment at a time during the night. This condition causes people to wake up often in order to get fresh oxygen into their lungs. Staying asleep with sleep apnea is difficult and you should seek medical advice is this sounds like you.

• Restless leg syndrome: This is a medical condition that causes severe discomfort in the legs and other parts of the body. It makes it difficult for people to get comfortable when they lay down, which can cause them to wake up at odd hours during the night and impacts sleep.

• Insomnia: This condition prevents you from getting enough sleep, whether through waking up early or by not being able to get back to sleep. A lack of sleep can cause you to wake up at all hours during the night.

• Circadian rhythm disorder: This is a condition that disrupts your natural body clock, which controls things like mood, energy levels and digestion. People with this condition are always tired or never feel sleepy, which causes them to wake up at odd hours during the night.

The psychology of 3am thoughts

For the average person, everything appears worse in the middle of the night.

Biologically, our bodies are already producing stress hormones at this time, so we are prone to feeling more stressed and anxious than at other times of the day.

As well as this, we are not operating at our most rational and logical. We have usually been sleeping for a few hours by this time, so we will be more tired and less able to think straight.

The result of all this is that it is very easy to allow yourself to over-think things in the middle of the night – especially if you’re already feeling stressed. Thoughts that might have seemed manageable earlier in the day can take on enormous proportions by this time, triggering panic and anxiety.

At 3am we are also less likely to have our normal coping mechanisms. Other people are asleep, the house is quiet, it’s dark and we feel isolated. If you are in a negative mood this can all combine to trigger further unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

Read also: How to go back to sleep after a nightmare

Waking up every night at 3am during pregnancy

If you are pregnant and waking up at 3am each night, here is an explanation for what might be happening to you.

Your sleep pattern is likely changing due to hormonal changes, the discomforts of later pregnancy, or both.

During the first trimester, your body will need naps to battle daytime fatigue and sleepiness. The second trimester may feel more normal with improved energy during the day and less need for naps. However in the third trimester most women wake up around 3-5 times a night because of such discomforts as back pain, needing to urinate, leg cramps, heartburn or fetal movement that can happen anytime during this time period which can also cause strange dreams and make it harder to sleep at night.

What to do if you wake up at 3am and can’t get back to sleep

If you find yourself waking up at 3am every night, try writing down some notes about your dreams or thoughts that are on your mind. This may help you to get back to sleep more quickly by distracting your mind from any problems that have been bothering you during the day.

It is also a good idea to stay up throughout the day, even if you are tired. A nap may seem tempting, but it’s likely to stop you being able to fall asleep at night. Staying awake all day is the first step to getting better quality of sleep at night.

Also ensure that you limit your screen time in the hour or so before bed, as the blue light from your phone or other electronic device can cause your body to believe that it is morning rather than nighttime and think that you should be wide awake.

Keep in mind that if you are going to bed at the same time every night and waking up exhausted, your sleep schedule may be out of sync with nature. In order to maintain a normal sleep cycle, it is important to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – even on the weekends – so that your body can maintain a healthy sleeping pattern.

Also, if you find yourself waking up and not being able to get back to sleep for several hours, try drinking a glass of warm milk or herbal tea before bedtime. This will help relax your muscles and calm your mind so that you can rest more comfortably throughout the night. It is also smart to avoid drinking too much water before bedtime, as this may cause you to need to get up to pee in the night.

If you are having trouble geting back to sleep you may want to practice deep breathing. This is a form of mediation where you focus only on your breathing and allow your mind to clear everything else. If you find yourself returning to worrying thoughts, just remind your brain to stop and return to practice deep breathing again.

If none of these strategies work to help you get through your 3am wake-ups, consult a sleep specialist to discover other possible remedies. Whatever you do, don’t get discouraged if you are constantly waking at this time of night. This is very common among young adults and there are always ways to help your body relax so that you can enjoy the restorative effect of a good night’s sleep.

Read also: Why can’t I sleep before a flight?

Conclusion: Why do I wake up at 3am?

There are a lot of different reasons why you may wake up at 3am, but most people go back to sleep and don’t realise. If you find it difficult to get back to sleep the most likely explanation is that you are feeling stressed or anxious. Relaxation exercises can help you sleep better.

It’s absolutely normal for things to feel worse at 3am than they do in the morning. Our bodies and minds are at a low ebb at that time and we don’t have our usual distractions and coating mechanisms.

Another reason you’re not getting enough REM sleep ma be that your body’s internal clock has shifted as a result. This could be because you’ve been sleeping in late or staying up too late watching TV before bedtime.

But the truth is we don’t really know why this happens – it could also have something to do with genetics or even diet! Try writing down your thoughts, drinking warm milk or herbal tea before bedtime, and practicing deep breathing if you find yourself not able to get back to sleep for hours on end. If none of these work call a sleep specialist as there are always ways to help!