Sleep Diaries cover

“What’s the secret to getting back to sleep when you wake up in the middle of the night?” A sleep expert answers your questions

Posted by for Sleep

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 41-year-old freelance writer learns how to return to a state of rest when she wakes up at night.

A little about me:

Age: 41

Occupation: freelance writer

Number of hours sleep you get each night: 7ish

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: 8+ hours

Do you grind your teeth/have nightmares: I’m a teeth grinder!

How much water you drink on average per day: 1.5-2 litres

How much exercise you do on average per week: I do daily yoga at home and dog walks.

Day 1

Today was a busy and stressful day I had been anticipating for weeks. By the time I get home I’m glad to have gotten through it all and feel pretty relieved, although I have a leftover stomach ache from the chaos of it all.

As a result, I bypass dinner and opt for a protein smoothie for easy digestion. I then sit down to watch a bit of TV before heading up to bed about 10pm.

I spend about 45 minutes reading before going to sleep. By the time I switch the lights out it’s a bit later than usual, but I needed some time to unwind after today.

During the night I wake up once around 4am instead of my usual 2:30am, and am able to get back to sleep until 5am, after which I drift in and out of sleep until my alarm goes off at 5:45am.

A woman lying in bed awake at night
“I don’t fall asleep until around 11pm and wake up again at 5am, after which I spend some time drifting in and out of sleep before getting out of bed at 6:30am.”

Day 2

I get up at 5:45am feeling much lighter and brighter despite a few wake-ups throughout the night. I think it’s because the culmination of my stress over the last few weeks is behind me – at least for a little while.

I have a glass of water and a cup of coffee before doing my usual 30 minutes of yoga at home. I get this done before the kids get up for school (my husband was at work by 7am this morning so it was my turn to get them ready). I have toast with peanut butter and a second cup of coffee with them at around 8am and refill my water bottle.

The morning passes and I have my third and final cup of coffee (all drip made at home) at around 2pm after lunch. I also walk the dog in the afternoon. By 4pm, I’m feeling exhausted – the weeks of stress and poor sleep have caught up with me.

That sleepy feeling disappears before I’m ready for bed, however, and by bedtime I feel fuelled by adrenaline once more. I don’t fall asleep until around 11pm and wake up again at 5am, after which I spend some time drifting in and out of sleep before getting out of bed at 6:30am.

Day 3 

It’s the weekend today, so I get up and have a cup of coffee, do 30 minutes of yoga and complete a morning of weekend chores before setting off on a six-mile walk with friends after lunch.

When we get back we eat dinner – a mixture of leftovers from the previous week. I also feel like I didn’t drink enough today while out on the walk, so I have a few pints of water.

I spend the evening relaxing on the sofa, and lights are out by 10:30pm. Fingers crossed all the physical exercise from the day will make for a good night’s rest.

Three friends walking and laughing in the countryside
“It’s the weekend today, so I get up and have a cup of coffee, do 30 minutes of yoga and complete a morning of weekend chores before setting off on a six-mile walk with friends after lunch.”

Day 4

I sleep through the night until 6:30am, waking up only once around 2:30am to go to the toilet.

Once I’m up I do my normal morning yoga. I also have two coffees and a bottle of water, before taking my daughter out to a birthday party. After dropping her off I wander around town with a cup of coffee for a few hours until it’s time to pick it up – by the time I’m home I’ve clocked in about five miles of walking.

We have tuna salad on bagels for dinner, and I head to bed for an intentionally early night in a bid to make up for the late (by my standards) bedtime I’ve had the last couple of nights. That means I’m in bed by 9:30pm, and switch the lights out by 10pm. At this point I’m feeling drained and perhaps on the verge of developing a cold if I’m not careful.

Day 5

I sleep deeply from around 10pm to 2am before waking up to pee. I then fall asleep again until my alarm goes off at 5:45am.

As usual, I have my two coffees, water and do some yoga. I also have a protein shake. I’m feeling OK – clear headed with a steady disposition, work pace and focus.

My day at work goes by and when dinner time comes around I have a beer with dinner to toast my late father’s would-be-birthday, after which I head to bed.

I switch the lights out shortly after at around 9:30pm, and I only end up waking up once at 1am, and then through to my alarm at 5:45am.

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “You’re stressed and it’s hitting your sleep and digestion but I’m really optimistic that I can help you – if you’re ready to make the changes.

“First of all, I want you to understand that it is totally normal to wake up during the night. The problem is that you’re monitoring the time and, I think, obsessing about it. It’s the clock watching, phone scrolling, ruminating and worrying that stops you from being able to get back to sleep. 

“You seem like a perfectionist – teeth grinding is a typical trait of perfectionists – so you might find this hard, but you really need to stop registering the time.”

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan Stylist's sleep expert
Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Dr Nerina continues: “Your caffeine intake and the fact that you drink coffee before eating is not helping your sleep or digestion. You need to break your fast and eat something small – half a banana and a handful of nuts or a boiled egg – and then on to your yoga with a more substantial breakfast afterwards. You may not realise it but you’re using caffeine as a substitute for food, and this is sabotaging your sleep and fuelling your stress levels. 

“The rule here is no caffeine until you’ve eaten and ideally no caffeine after 2pm. In your case, I would also say a maximum of one coffee a day – sorry!

“When (not if) you wake during the night, I want you to focus on your breathing and follow your breaths with silent, gentle IIIINNNNNs and OOOUTTTTs to get you back into a state of rest. You can even follow one of my famous body scan techniques – Love Yourself To Sleep is available on Amazon Audible and it will give you a simple but powerful technique for falling asleep or getting back to sleep during the night.”

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email lauren.geall@stylist.co.uk with your name, age and any sleep problems you’re dealing with, using ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Other images: Getty/Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Share this article

Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

Recommended by Lauren Geall