Nice Life Reminders Pip-Life

Are you a sleep screw-up or ..?

June 11, 2021

Very often, I wake in the night. I’m not sure if it’s because of my age, my brain, my hormones or a heady mix of all of the above, but wake in the night I do.

Once upon a time, I’d worry about the waking. I had read (and written about) the importance of a good night’s sleep. I’d lie there, way too comfy and cosy to be awake, and wonder what I was doing wrong, why I couldn’t succeed at sleep, why I was a snooze screw-up.

I would avoid coffee and tea after midday, I’d eat a carb-heavy meal that might make me sleepy. Or I’d eat a light meal that might help my digestive system relax. I’d be sure to move my body during the day. I’d do bedtime yoga. I’d meditate.

Yet I’d still wake in the darkness, slide my eyes over to the clock and note that it was 2am or 3am or if I was lucky 4. (4am meant that it was nearly 5am which mean that it was an okay-ish time to get up and face the day.)

For a while, after I moved from Victoria to Tasmania, I slept more heavily. The sensory overload and daily drama involved in being in another part of the world were settling.

But not for long ..!

Soon it was back to the middle of the night waking. The still room. The possums scuttling outside on the roof. The cracking eaves. The snoring pups. And sometimes the clattering rain.

Often I’d lurk on social media to see who else was awake in the deep dark night.  There were a LOT of people marked ‘active’ most nights. I didn’t talk to them, of course, because the deep dark night hours are extremely private and breaking into someone else’s sleepless bubble would be terrible manners.

Eventually, if I caught myself non-asleep at 3am despite best efforts, I’d get up and make a cup of tea. I’d take it back to bed, re-plump my pillows, snuggle back under the covers and listen to something new. It might be the radio, it might be an audiobook (they always make me fall asleep and force me to replay the missed bits, so they’re not my number one choice) or it might be a podcast.

One night at 3.30am I was sipping tea in the lamplight and listening to (wonderful) Wintering author Katherine May talk about her own night waking. I was delighted. Katherine seemed to be a sleep screw-up too. Clearly I was not delighted that she found sleep complicated at times, dear reader. I am not a monster. It was more that I was comforted by someone speaking about the sleepless hours in a positive, accepting way.

I immediately resolved to stop worrying so much about the waking and the toll it was taking on me and the terrible self-looker-after that I am.  Instead I decided to just live this part of the evening as I saw fit. Perhaps with a hot water bottle refill, perhaps with some reading, perhaps with some listening, maybe with some tea.

Katherine pointed out that in ye olden days, it was very normal wake up in the night for a period known as “the watch”. 

The French apparently called the night waking period dorveille which means ‘wake sleep’ and they treated this segmented approach to sleep positively too. Some wrote poetry or journals. Others had sex. A few chopped wood.

An historian named A Roger Ekirch says that for centuries, waking in the middle of the night for an hour or so was common practice. He even wrote a book (in part) about it. It was a time used to interpret dreams, reflect and pray, all of which sounds like the opposite of worrying why the heck one is not asleep. I much prefer the reflection model.

Jesse Barron writing for The New York Times Magazine notes that the middle-of-night waking has a special feeling about it .. a “non anxious wakefulness.”

“The time feels freer. The urge to be busy abates,” Jesse says.

I agree wholeheartedly and now think of these hours as a gift, rather than proof that I am a sleep screw-up. The watch is a well-earned snippet in the night where I can think deeper thoughts, sip bigger sips, take care of my own comfort and feel a little bit more in sync with myself, the world, and my fellow night-wakers.

What do you do when you wake up in the night?

x pip


  • Reply Heathery June 17, 2021 at 7:53 PM

    Beautiful post, Pip. There are so many of us awake at strange hours. I read recipe books when I get up in the middle of the night- avoid novels ! x

  • Reply Loretta June 13, 2021 at 11:39 PM

    This book brought me a lot of comfort and is beautifully written:

  • Reply Meryl June 12, 2021 at 7:00 AM

    I’ve had years of broken sleep and was also comforted by finding out that it’s normal. Also, not worrying about it somehow makes me feel okay the next day, as if I’ve had a full night’s sleep. Often when I think I’ve made a good life decision, I’ll wake in the night and realise I need to do the opposite. So that’s helpful! If I’ve had too many sleepless nights in a row then I take a herbal sleep aid with hop flowers in it (never valerian) and that makes a lovely, dreamy night.

  • Reply Reannon June 11, 2021 at 9:32 PM

    I listened to a podcast that spoke of those waking hours in the way you’re looking at them now, as extra time. I wish I could remember which episode number it was but it was Rangan Chatterjee’s pod Feel Better Live More if you wanted to have a little search.
    I went through years of night waking, usually at 2.43am, where my brain would tell me the most horrible stories. Recently it’s slowed down so it’s not happening every night but still weekly. Two things help quiet my brains -meditations or boring podcasts (ones I’m not overly invested in). I find if I have a soft voice in my ear it’ll drown out the voice in my head.

  • Reply Clare June 11, 2021 at 9:18 PM

    As a sleep screw-up I love everything about this. I even love this expression ´ the watch´ as if clarifying it´s my time to be alone, to observe but not to partake in the messy daytime stuff. Thank you!

  • Reply kate June 11, 2021 at 7:57 PM

    I usually wake 2 or 3 times each night,mostly I’m quickly back to sleep. Very rarely worry brain jumps in and drives sleep well away, in those occasions I usually get up and read, wrapped in blankets on the dining room couch. If it’s a night when hubster is away I relish in being able to turn the lamp on and read in my bed until I fall asleep. I love the idea of not fretting about being awake and use it as time to just relax and be kind to myself. Gosh I need to be much much kinder to me
    Cheers Kate

  • Reply Tonje June 11, 2021 at 5:43 PM

    Sometime I wake up just to use the bathroom – and go back to sleep afterwards. Other times, it’s an hour or two of rolling around trying to go back to sleep (successful, about 10 minutes before the alarm goes off). I’ve given up some mornings (nights..), gotten up, found a quilt and tucked myself into an armchair with a book, a podcast (video or audio) or my knitting. One time I ended up finishing a sweater before the alarm went off and the rest of the house woke up.

    Although I’d really like to get all my sleep – it’s strangely comforting to be the only one awake in the house, having a little time for myself before the day begins. (Even when I know I’ll be crashing, energy level-wise, around 2PM, no matter the amount of coffee or tea consumed.)

  • Reply /anne... June 11, 2021 at 1:48 PM

    I wake a lot when I’m not working. Did you know that most people’s sleep cycle is about 90 minutes? So if you wake after, say, three hours, it’s not odd, it’s just that you’re in a lighter part of the sleep cycle. You won’t wake at the end of every cycle (hopefully!), but at least that makes it understandable.

  • Reply Cindy G June 11, 2021 at 1:08 PM

    I seem to wake right around 2:30 am on a regular basis. Sometimes, I get up to use the bathroom, but other times I roll over and go back to sleep. On a few rare occasions, I just can’t sleep, so I get up and work on a crossword puzzle or two. Once or twice, I watched a bit of TV. Lately, I’ve been waking a bit before the 5:30 am alarm. I never get up, but burrow down into the blankets for the last few minutes. I’ve also embraced the late afternoon or early evening nap. It doesn’t usually mess up my night sleep (I think), and it usually gives me just the boost I need to get something done in the evening … if I feel like it, that is!

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