Stylist's Sleep Diaries: why do I keep waking up at 2am?

“Is clock-watching bad for my sleep?” 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 key worker wonders if her clock-watching habit is keeping her up all night.

A little about me:

Age: 50

Occupation: key worker (I organise logistics for a nationwide veg box delivery company)

Number of hours sleep you get each night: 8

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: 6

Do you have any sleep conditions: I have sleep apnoea, so I use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy machine every night

How much water you drink on average per day: 1 litre (and five cups of tea)

How much exercise I do on average per week: it currently depends on weather, but try to get out on a run, cycle or equivalent indoor exercise activity 2-3 times a week

Day 1

It’s Sunday, and a relatively stress-free day. After dinner, I have a bath at 8:30pm and watch telly tucked up in bed.

I know I start work tomorrow at 6am, and so I find it really difficult to get to sleep as I’m worrying I won’t wake up in time. Usually, I listen to my Harry Potter audiobook and fall asleep in 15 minutes, but tonight I’m still awake after my usual 30-minute timer stops the book.

Eventually, I drift off, but I wake up just after midnight. I’m not sure what woke me, but when I turn to put my audiobook back on, I find my phone isn’t there. Turns out my 18-year-old son has borrowed it while he’s in the bathroom as his own phone has run out of battery.

I worry that he will not put it back and I will miss my alarm, so I get out of bed to ask for it back. Then, I have a wee and go back to bed. But I don’t settle until he has brought my phone back some 15 minutes later. Finally, I put my mask back on, my CPAP machine on, and I drift off.

woman sleeping with cpap mask because of obstructive sleep apnea - stock photo
Sleep Diaries: I use a CPAP machine to help me sleep.

I’m awake again at 3.34am. The cat has come into my room and is meowing for food. We are looking after my brother’s dog at the moment and the cat can only roam around freely at night when the dog is put away in the study.

At 4.27am, I’m awake again (I know because I have a projector clock that shows the time in the ceiling). I toss and turn for a bit, until my alarm goes off at 5.30am. I don’t feel rested and by midday I’m yawning at work. 

Day 2

I kick off the day with a breakfast of Marmite toast, which is my usual breakfast. I stick a chilli in the slow cooker so there is something ready when I get in, and head to work.

I get home at 6:30pm after a busy day. After dinner, I go up to my bedroom (which is like a mini apartment), as the kids have taken over the lounge with the Xbox.

I watch telly for a couple of hours, have a bath and am in bed with my mask, machine and Harry Potter book on by 11pm.

As always, though, I wake up at 2.30am. The cat has come in demanding food, so I get up, feed him, have a wee and go back to bed. I restart my machine and audiobook (which I set to turn off after 10 minutes). 

Day 3

I wake up to my alarm at 7am, but still feel sleepy so I snooze it three times before finally getting up. The lie-in means there’s no time for breakfast, so I make myself tea and toast when I get to work at about 9:30am

Due to the third lockdown, it’s very busy at work, so I don’t get home until 7pm. I make chicken wraps and salad for tea, then settle down for a date (virtual, obviously) at 9pm. I have a glass of red wine, as I would do if we met at the pub, and we end up chatting until 11:30pm

Come 11:45pm I’m in bed with all my tech on. But, just 45 minutes later, I’m snapped awake by the dog barking downstairs. Something has spooked him.

I wake up again at 3.30am, but nothing has disturbed me. I often wake at this time of night. 

Sleeping pills in bedroom - stock photo
Sleep Diaries: I often wake up around 3:30am.

Day 4

Again, I hit the snooze button three times when my 7am alarm goes off. I feel so tired. I head into work, make myself some toast at around 10am, and break at lunch for an M&S ready meal.

When I get home at 6.30pm, I help myself to a bowl of chicken tikka (which I made in the slow cooker). Then, I watch telly for a couple of hours and do some resin craft with my 16-year-old daughter for about an hour.

I’m in bed by 11pm, but still watching telly; I have to catch up with The Pembrokeshire Murders on ITV

At 11:30pm, the dog has fallen asleep on my bed, but I know my son will call him out when he goes up to bed himself. So I stick on my mask, machine and Harry Potter, and fall asleep quite quickly, but am awake again at 3.32am.

For once, I woke before the cat; I think he senses when I awake and then asks for food.

I get up, make him dinner, have a wee, and head back to bed. But I’m still awake at 4.30am, and I can’t get comfy. I try shifting the pillows that I cuddle (my main sleeping pillow is made of memory foam, like my mattress), and eventually nod off. 

Day 5 

I wake up at 7am and, though I feel tired, I decide not hit snooze this time. I hop in the shower and manage to get to work by 8.20am, but it’s so busy there’s no time for tea and toast until well over an hour later.

When I finally get home just before 8pm, I can’t face cooking, so I order a Chinese takeaway. Then, at 9pm, I log into Zoom for my second online date of the week. Nursing a G&T, we wind up taking until 11.47pm.

I’m still in bed by midnight, but watch an hour of telly before putting my mask, machine, and audiobook on.

I wake up at 4:35am to find that the day has brought me a present; I turn to find a dead mouse on my bed. Ugh. I fish the mouse from the cat, dispose of it out the bathroom window, have a wee, and back to bed.

When I wake up naturally at 8:33am (I don’t work today), I’m tired. Actually, more exhausted. I have so many bits that need doing around the house but I’m lacking motivation. Everything seems like so much energy.

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

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “I really want to help you, as I feel your tiredness and you seem to have a lot on your plate. So first of all, you really need to stop checking the time during the night and please – can you get rid of that clock that projects the time onto the ceiling? They are awful, and it’s just keeping you in a hypervigilant clock-watching state.

“When you wake up in the night (I say ‘when’ because it’s normal to wake during the night), you need to not look at the time. Yes, go to the loo if you need to, then get back into bed and focus on your breath and resting – don’t fixate on ‘sleeping’.”

If you’re a sensitive sleeper then checking the time can send you into a whirl of calculations and worry about how much sleep you will or won’t be getting. Put trust in your alarm—it will wake you up.

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

    Dr Nerina continues: “You have sleep apnoea and your caffeine intake could be making it worse – cut back on caffeine, and try to drink more water throughout the day, please. You may also be at that age when perimenopause or menopausal hormonal changes might make sleep more fitful, so you need every trick in the book.

    “To that end, I recommend taking a look at my five non-negotiable sleep rules. In particular, you need to make sure you eat breakfast with an added source of protein within 30 minutes or so of getting up. Can you swap your Marmite for nut butter maybe?

    “Hopefully, these changes will help your energy levels and you can get out for more exercise with your brother’s dog. Getting out in the fresh air and walking could do wonders for your apnoea.”

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      Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

      Images: Getty/Unsplash

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      Kayleigh Dray

      Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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