Have you been tasked with rousing a friend or loved one from a deep sleep? Taking responsibility for how someone starts their day might feel like a lot of pressure, but all that’s required to do it well is a bit of self-reflection — whatever wake-up methods work for you will likely work for other sleepers (i.e. light, music, the smell of coffee percolating or waffles toasting) — and some basic awareness of their bigger sleep and energy picture (i.e. when they went to bed, whether they’re sleep deprived, what time they usually wake up, etc.).
While the sleeper in question may need to be woken at a certain time (for work, school, or to catch a flight, for instance), in the absence of scheduled commitments you’ll want to make sure you’re timing their wake-up optimally for them. To ensure they’re ready to be roused, ideally their sleep need and chronotype (i.e. are they an early or late riser by nature?) are also taken into account.
Here we’ll walk you through different options for how to wake someone both effectively and empathetically, and some things to consider before you do.
Unless our bodies wake naturally, crossing the threshold from sleep to wakefulness requires some form of external stimuli, usually in the form of light, sound, or physical sensation. To wake someone, you’ll typically need to introduce one or more of these sensory inputs into their sleeping environment.
But before you burst into the bedroom banging pots and pans, first ask yourself: How do I like to be woken up? Chances are, you prefer a gentle, gradual wake-up to a jarring one. While startling someone awake might be time-efficient (and, let’s be honest, we may also get a kick out of the power it momentarily gives us), a fear-induced spike in adrenaline isn’t an ideal way to start a new day. Research shows that in some instances abrupt awakenings can even be dangerous, as they cause a bump in heart rate and blood pressure, which, over time, can have adverse effects on cardiovascular health. (As a side note, even though they’re fairly ubiquitous in today’s rise-and-grind world, caustic cell phone alarm tones can impact us similarly — we’ll cover some alternatives below, which we encourage you to consider for your own good morning as well!)
Here are some heart healthy (and general well-being approved) options for how to wake someone up. (While this section covers nightly sleep explicitly, the same care should be taken with nappers, for the record.)
When it comes to regulating our sleep-wake cycles, light is king. As the sun sets in the evening, it’s the diminishing light that allows our pineal glands to begin producing the sleep hormone melatonin (this phase is even known scientifically as Dim Light Melatonin Onset, or DLMO). By the same token, exposure to sunlight in the morning — nature’s wake-up call — promptly brings melatonin production to a halt, and bumps up the synthesis of the wake-up hormone cortisol.
For better or worse, the thin membrane of our eyelids doesn’t render us impervious to the rousing effects of light. Even in sleep, the photoreceptors in our eyes still perceive changes in light, and signal to our sleep-wake hormone-producing centers accordingly. This means, essentially, that incremental exposure to light — even in our sleep — triggers our brains to begin waking us from the inside. So not only is light a highly effective wake-up tool, when it’s introduced gradually — as in the case of the sun rising — it’s perfectly gentle.
The keyword is gradual, however. A lot of light all at once can still be a shock to our systems. So while we want to avoid flipping on the overhead lights or throwing open the curtains, gradually letting sunlight into a dark bedroom is a great way to compassionately rouse someone. Consider opening the bedroom door so that light from adjoining rooms filters in, or lifting the blinds just an inch or two. Then give the light some time to do its work. If the person hasn’t stirred after about ten minutes, introduce a bit more light, and then a bit more, and so on.
If natural light is scarce, artificial light will also do the trick of inhibiting melatonin production and stimulating cortisol. For a hands-off approach, some folks swear by their sunrise alarm clocks. These programmable bedside lamps grow increasingly brighter over the course of 30 minutes or so in the morning, allowing a sleeper to wake up quasi-naturally, without a mobile phone.
Like light, sound is best when it gradually increases in volume and/or intensity. Sudden loud noises — like a loud voice or cellphone ringtone — may get the job done, but can carry unintended consequences, as mentioned. Instead, opt for subtler, less intrusive sounds — recorded nature sounds or gentle music that builds naturally, for instance — and slowly bump up the volume over the course of a few minutes (or progressively move the speaker or iPhone closer to the sleeping person).
According to one study, melodic or “tuneful” wake-up sounds may also help curb sleep inertia (i.e. the period of “grogginess” we all experience post-waking, which typically lasts about 90 minutes), so picking a song or melody that is readily hummable might offer the sleeper a helpful boost to start their day. (For what it’s worth, the same study determined that 500 Hz is the frequency sweet-spot, and 100-120 beats per minute is the ideal speed for encouraging alertness upon waking.) Songs that match these criteria and are also beloved by the person you’re trying to rouse are especially recommended, as a favorite tune promotes wakefulness and has a potentially positive effect on mood.
Loud, shrill alarm sounds (like most of those that are automatically programmed into our iPhones and Androids) should be avoided whenever possible, for you and for anyone you’re trying to wake up. As an alternative, check out RISE’s new gentle alarm feature, which — as the name suggests — is engineered to gently and effectively rouse sleepers using a combination of vibration and sound.
Depending on your level of intimacy with the sleeper, lightly caressing, rocking, or massaging could be another option. To avoid startling them, you’ll want to start softly and gradually increase pressure until they begin to stir.
That said, this method isn’t exactly foolproof. There’s ample evidence that physical touch — particularly from someone we love and trust — can calm our nervous systems and promote a sense of peace and well-being. While this is lovely in theory, the physiological effects — lowered heart rate and blood pressure among them — are more aligned with falling asleep than waking. Production of cortisol can also be curbed by close physical contact. While there are certainly instances where we might benefit from a reduction in cortisol (aside from its essential role in the wake part of our sleep-wake cycle, cortisol also triggers our “flight or fight” response, and is implicated in chronic stress and insomnia), waking isn’t one of them. So while you can successfully nudge someone from sleep via gentle touch, whether they’ll have the motivation to then hop out of bed and get their day going is another thing.
Smell is a bit of an honorable mention here. While odors on their own aren’t considered a reliable way to wake most people — in one sleep study, for instance, only two out of 10 test subjects woke after the smell of smoke was introduced to their room — when certain smells are presented in tandem with other wake-up methods, they can go a long way in increasing wakefulness. Anecdotally, smells that a person associates with breakfast, in particular — coffee brewing, eggs or bacon frying, cinnamon rolls fresh out of the oven — can stimulate appetite and increase mental arousal, making it harder to fall back asleep.
Other scents that have been scientifically proven to buoy energy and promote alertness include peppermint, eucalyptus, and rosemary. Consider diffusing these essential oils or using a room spray that features these scents to bolster the efficacy of your other wake-up tactics.
Not everyone will respond to all (or any) of these tactics — it will depend on both the sleeper and the day, and very heavy sleepers or those with sleep disorders may unfortunately require harsher interventions, especially if their waking-up is time-sensitive. Teenagers in particular can be notoriously hard to wake, largely due to changes in their biology (most notably, DLMO skews later in teens, meaning their bodies are inclined to go to sleep — and hence wake up — on a later schedule).
Here are a couple techniques to try if gentler methods fail:
Keep in mind, however, that if you’re rousing someone before their body is ready — perhaps they’re sleep deprived from a jam-packed week, or they were tossing and turning for hours in the middle of the night — they’re going to be harder to wake. If someone has the luxury of sleeping in, don’t only wake them because you believe they “should” be up at a certain time. When it comes to sleep, everyone is different. We’ll cover these differences in depth in the next section.
Of course there are mornings when we don’t have much choice in the matter; we need to wake someone up at a certain time because they have somewhere to be (or we do). But whenever possible, it’s beneficial to take a look at their larger sleep context by asking yourself the following questions:
A person’s sleep need, simply put, is how much sleep they need to get each night in order to function at their best mentally, emotionally, and physically. While common wisdom suggests we all should strive for 8 hours, sleep need is in fact highly individual, and determined by genetics. One study suggests that the average sleep need is in closer 8 hours and 40 minutes (plus or minus about 10 minutes), and not only that, but a shockingly large percentage of people (13.5%, to be exact) require 9 or more hours! So just because you’re well-rested and hitting peak productivity after 7.5 hours of sleep, this doesn’t mean that the person you’re waking up is able to get by on that same amount.
To complicate things further, sleep debt, which is the running tally of how many hours of sleep we’ve shorted ourselves compared to our sleep need over a certain period of time (in the RISE app, we use a 14-day window), also plays a major role in how much sleep our bodies are calling for on any given night. When someone’s been consistently short-sleeping — even 30 minutes of missed sleep each night adds up over time — their bodies and brains are looking for opportunities to make up this lost sleep, so their sleep need may temporarily be even greater. And it’s important that we allow them to pay down this sleep debt, if schedules permit — high sleep debt doesn’t simply result in feeling uncomfortably drowsy or inconveniently low-energy. It impacts every aspect of our lives, from cognition to mood, to performance at work, to our immune system’s ability to fight off whatever bug is going around.
How do we know if the person we’re tasked with waking is shouldering significant sleep debt, or how much sleep they need each night? RISE can help! Thanks to our new Partner Connect feature, you can sync accounts with your nearest and dearest, allowing you to see each other’s sleep and energy data. This way, you won’t be left guessing about their average nightly sleep need, when they fell asleep the night before, or how deep in the sleep debt hole they really are.
There’s a lot of variation among us when it comes to our ideal sleep-wake schedules. And not just as a matter of preference, either — like sleep need, our chronotype (aka when we’re naturally inclined to go to bed and wake up, when left to our own devices) is hardwired into our genetics, and is unique to us. Some of us are diehard early risers by nature, while some are happiest and healthiest when regularly burning the midnight oil. In chronotype-speak, these are “early birds” and “night owls,” respectively, though chronotype isn’t actually a dichotomy — people exist all across the sleep-wake spectrum. (And, for the record, chronotype doesn’t just determine when we fall asleep and wake up, but also the timing of our energy peaks and dips during our waking hours.)
So before you jump the gun on waking a late-sleeper, it’s worth considering their chronotype. Snoozing until 10am might be falsely perceived as lazy or indulgent to a morning person who’s already taken two important phone calls by the time the sun comes up, but for someone who was awake into the wee hours riding their own late-night productivity wave, they’re simply meeting their sleep need.
If they do, you should try not to take it personally. People aren’t the best versions of themselves immediately after waking. In addition to grogginess and confusion, sleep inertia can also cause short-term emotional dysregulation. Crankiness, grumpiness, call it what you will — while it’s certainly unpleasant, it’s luckily a fleeting state. If you’ve done what you can to wake the person thoughtfully, trust that their bad mood has nothing to do with you and will burn off quickly (assuming their sleep debt is low).
It’s worth restating that high sleep debt increases both the duration and severity of sleep inertia, which is yet another reason to let someone meet their sleep need. And sudden wake-ups can be especially disorienting — amplifying sleep inertia — so gentler methods are preferable for this reason too.
Nappers aren’t much different, as far as sleep inertia is concerned. As a rule of thumb: the longer the nap, the worse the sleep inertia typically is, so rouser beware! Though for naps under 20 minutes, sleep inertia is usually nil.
How and when we wake up has an impact not only on our morning, but our whole day…and beyond. To set your sleeper up for lasting success, try employing gentle wake-up techniques that are timed with their bigger sleep and energy picture in mind.
And if it’s someone for whom you’re frequently tasked with wake-up duty, make sure to check out RISE’s Partner Connect feature, which can give you the insight you need to make the right call on their wake-up call.
Try setting an alarm clock or music speaker to a volume that’s not easy to ignore, and place it somewhere in the room where they can’t reach it from bed. In order to turn it off, they’ll have no choice but to get out of bed, making it less likely they’ll drift off to sleep again.
It depends on the sleeper and the day. Some people wake–even from a deep sleep–fairly readily, while others are completely dead to the world. Gradual and gentle wake-up techniques are best for intervening during deeper stages of sleep, as they’re less jarring and help curb sleep inertia (i.e. the grogginess and disorientation we all feel in the 90 minutes after waking.)
Gradual methods are encouraged for the health and well-being of the sleeper, but if you need to wake someone up right away, loud noises in the frequency ballpark of 500 Hz are an effective way of rousing someone quickly.
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