Should I Stay Up if I Can’t Sleep? Yes, But… Says Sleep MD

You should stay up if you can’t sleep. Get out of bed and do a relaxing activity in low lighting until you feel sleepy, instead of trying to force sleep.
Published
2024-01-09
11 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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Should I Stay Up if I Can’t Sleep? 

  • You should stay up if you can’t sleep, but you don’t want to give up on sleep altogether.
  • If you can’t sleep after 20 or 30 minutes, get out of bed and go to a different room. Do a relaxing activity in low light, like reading or deep breathing, and only get back into bed if you start feeling sleepy. This is known as a sleep reset. 
  • The RISE app can guide you through a sleep reset. RISE can also walk you through 20+ daily sleep hygiene behaviors that’ll help you fall asleep and wake up less often in the first place, and the app can help you catch up on lost sleep.

We can’t just flick a switch and turn our brains off for the night. But staying up and feeling awful the next day doesn’t exactly sound appealing. 

Below, we’ll dive into whether you should stay up if you can’t sleep and how to do it correctly to avoid further disrupting your sleep and next-day energy levels. We’ll also cover how the RISE app can help you fall asleep faster in the first place.

Ask a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

“You should stay up if you can’t sleep. But instead of giving up on sleep, do a sleep reset. This involves doing something relaxing in a different room until you feel sleepy. This way, you’re not forcing sleep, which unfortunately won’t work, you’re allowing sleep to happen when your body’s ready.”

That’s what Rise Science sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu, who is double board certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine, has to say.

Should I Stay Up if I Can’t Sleep?

You should stay up if you can’t sleep by doing a sleep reset. A sleep reset is when you get out of bed and do a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. You then get back into bed to let yourself to fall asleep again. If you still struggle to sleep, do another sleep reset. 

You can do a sleep reset if you can’t sleep at the start of the night, when you wake up in the middle of the night, or if you wake up too early. More on why sleep resets work soon.

Here’s how to do a sleep reset:

  • Give yourself 20 or 30 minutes to fall asleep: Give yourself some time to drift off. Falling asleep straight away or within 10 minutes at the start of the night is a sign of sleep deprivation. We’ve covered why it takes you so long to fall asleep here. 
  • Get out of bed and do a relaxing activity: If you can’t sleep after 20 or 30 minutes, get up, move to a different room, and do a relaxing activity. You want to do something that’s distracting (so you don’t think about getting back to sleep or lost sleep), but not too exciting or stimulating. Try reading, breathing exercises, journaling, NSDR or yoga nidra, or some gentle household chores like folding laundry or organizing a bookshelf.   
  • Avoid sleep disruptors: Stay in dim light and resist the temptation to check the time, use electronic devices, or get a midnight snack.
  • Get back in bed only if you feel sleepy: Don’t try to rush the process and try not to get stressed about being awake. This will only make it harder to fall asleep. Think of this time as bonus me-time and trust that you’ll feel sleepy soon enough.
  • If you can’t sleep, do another sleep reset: If you get back in bed and struggle to sleep again, simply do another sleep reset. Follow these steps again.  

RISE can send you a silent reminder to do a sleep reset and guide you through the steps if you reach for your phone at night. 

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Temporarily Staying Up to Treat Insomnia

If you have chronic difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early, sleep restriction therapy is one possible treatment. This involves temporarily staying up later or waking up earlier to reduce your time in bed. 

Sleep restriction can increase your sleep pressure (the urge to sleep), decrease arousal, and keep the timing of your sleep more consistent, resulting in higher sleep efficiency (more time asleep when in bed). You then slowly increase your time in bed, hopefully increasing your time asleep, and continuous time asleep, with it.

This treatment may be suitable when your sleep efficiency is less than 85%, or less than 80% for older adults. Sleep efficiency is measured by dividing total sleep time by time in bed.

To determine your reduced time in bed, you take your average sleep times over the last two weeks (keep a sleep diary or check RISE for more accurate data) and limit yourself to this amount of time in bed. 

For example, if you have trouble falling asleep (sleep onset insomnia) or staying asleep (sleep maintenance insomnia), you’d typically stay up later than usual. If you average, say, nine hours in bed, but only get six hours of sleep, you’d reduce your time in bed to six hours, set a wake-up time, and count back to find your new bedtime. 

You wouldn’t usually spend less than five hours in bed, though, even if you get less sleep than this.

On this new sleep schedule, you work out your sleep efficiency. When you have high sleep efficiency (85% or higher) over the course of a week, you slightly increase your time in bed. If your sleep efficiency is less than 80%, you cut your time in bed further.

If this sounds tricky to get right, that’s because it is! Sleep restriction should only be done under the guidance of a healthcare provider (a cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, CBT-I, practitioner) or a CBT-I app. That way, you’ll get a precise protocol tailored to your specific sleep issues and health status, and professional oversight to ensure it’s done safely and effectively. 

Heads-up: If you need to be vigilant at work to avoid accidents (maybe you’re a surgeon or truck driver), sleep restriction might not be for you. But you’ll probably have a lot of daytime sleepiness from insomnia anyway, so taking time off work to try the treatment may be needed, if possible. Speak to your healthcare provider to get personalized advice. 

Sleep restriction therapy is often done as part of CBT-I, but it can also be a standalone treatment. Research suggests it’s effective as a standalone treatment in the short term, but more research is needed to see if sleep restriction is effective by itself in the long run.

Sleep restriction may help a few different types of insomnia: 

  • Sleep onset insomnia — trouble falling asleep 
  • Sleep maintenance insomnia — trouble staying asleep 
  • Early morning awakening insomnia — trouble waking up too early (although more research is needed as it may not help in all cases)
  • Mixed insomnia — a combination of different types of insomnia 

There’s some debate over whether sleep restriction helps if you have paradoxical insomnia, which is when you think you’re getting less sleep than you are. Your sleep efficiency may be normal, so staying up in the form of sleep restriction may not be useful. However, it can still help, says Dr. Wu, because sleep restriction, by limiting time in bed and increasing sleep drive, “may not provide someone the opportunity to think they’re awake when they’re actually asleep.” 

Is It Better to Lay in Bed if You Can’t Sleep?

It’s not better to lay in bed if you can’t sleep as you may be less likely to fall asleep, both tonight and in the future. 

Lying awake in bed is anxiety-inducing — especially if you’re constantly peaking at the time — and this anxiety can make it harder to drift off. You also want to avoid sleep effort, when you try to control and force sleep. Sleep effort can exacerbates and perpetuate insomnia, so the more you try to force sleep, the less likely you are to achieve it.

Getting out of bed when you can’t sleep can take your mind off sleep problems to help you avoid anxiety and sleep effort, so you’re more likely to start feeling sleepy

If lying awake in bed is a regular occurrence, this can lead to conditioned arousal, when your body associates your bed with wakefulness. Your bed and bedroom can become cues for stress and frustration, which can make it harder to fall asleep. 

To help your brain associate your bed with sleep, and weaken the association between your bed and wakefulness, you can practice stimulus control, which includes doing sleep resets. 

This involves: 

  • Only getting into bed when you feel sleepy
  • Using your bed for sleep and sex only — avoid reading, watching TV, or working
  • Getting out of bed when you can’t sleep (sleep reset) 
  • Waking up at the same time each day 
  • Avoiding naps if you have insomnia or are doing sleep restriction  

So, as difficult as it is to leave your cozy bed, it’s better to get out of bed and go to a different room when you’re having trouble sleeping. Do something relaxing and distracting, and only get back into bed when you feel sleepy. 

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Should I Pull an All-Nighter if I Can’t Sleep?

You shouldn’t voluntarily pull an all-nighter if you can’t sleep. Not getting enough sleep can lead to low energy, poor mood, trouble concentrating, and physical and mental health problems like obesity and depression, so you don’t want to give up on sleep altogether. 

But don’t just lay in bed getting frustrated. Keep doing sleep resets and only going back to bed when sleepy. If you don’t feel sleepy, keep doing your relaxing activity with the lights low. 

We dive more into this idea of whether it’s better to get a little bit of sleep or none here.

Expert tip: If you’re not doing sleep restriction, catch up on lost sleep when you can. Check RISE to see how much sleep debt you have (this is the sleep you owe your body) and pay it back by taking naps, heading to bed a little earlier, and sleeping in a little later. If you regularly have sleepless nights, you might want to avoid naps, however. 

We’ve covered how to catch up on sleep here.

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can tell you how much sleep debt you have.

RISE works out your sleep debt based on how much sleep you need — also known as your sleep need. This number is different for everyone. When we looked at 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and older, we found it ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. 

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need
How much sleep RISE users need.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click view their sleep need here and view their sleep debt here.

What to Do When You Regularly Can’t Sleep?

If you regularly can’t sleep, take a look at your sleep hygiene. This is the set of daily habits that help or hurt your sleep.

Follow these good sleep habits to have an easier time falling asleep: 

  • Get out in sunlight each morning and during the day 
  • Avoid large meals, vigorous exercise, caffeine, and alcohol too close to bedtime
  • Avoid bright light before bed and any light at all when you’re trying to sleep 
  • Be careful with screens before bed (the blue light, stimulating content, and bingeable nature of spending time on your phone or watching tv can keep you up)  
  • Take time to unwind with a relaxing bedtime routine. RISE can guide you through relaxation and breathing exercises.
  • Avoid sleep aids (sleep medications can come with side effects and may cause rebound insomnia, meaning even more trouble sleeping when you stop taking them)  

To nail your sleep hygiene, RISE can tell you the best time to do 20+ habits based on your body clock to make them even more effective. 

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You should also think about your circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock that dictates your sleep-wake cycle. If you go to bed out of sync with your circadian rhythm, you may struggle to sleep, even if you feel tired

This can happen if you: 

  • Have an irregular sleep schedule 
  • Have jet lag 
  • Work night shifts
  • Are trying to sleep hours earlier than usual (perhaps a night owl trying to sleep early for the workweek)   

Keep a regular sleep schedule and check RISE to see when your body is more primed to fall asleep. 

RISE users say the app helps them get better sleep overall.  

“I’m sleeping better regardless of time asleep (we all know life happens) because RISE will give me notifications about when to stop drinking coffee and alcohol, and when my ideal time to go to bed is.” Read the review

Everyone has trouble sleeping now and again, so don’t panic if you can’t sleep one night. But if it’s a regular occurrence — or it takes you a few sleep resets to drift off —  inspect your sleep hygiene and circadian rhythm. 

If you still get a lack of sleep, get medical advice. A healthcare provider can check for underlying medical conditions or sleep disorders, like sleep apnea or insomnia. If you’re diagnosed with the latter, that’s when sleep restriction therapy may help. 

We’ve covered more things to do when you can’t sleep here.  

RISE app screenshot showing sleep hygiene reminders
The RISE app can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here

Stay Up, But Don’t Give Up on Sleep  

You should stay up if you can’t sleep, but that doesn’t mean giving up on sleep altogether. If you’re still awake after 20 or 30 minutes, do a sleep reset. And if you regularly battle sleeplessness, consider getting CBT-I or sleep restriction guidance. 

RISE can help you perfect your sleep hygiene by sending you timed reminders of 20+ daily habits. This’ll help you fall asleep and stay asleep more easily to begin with. 

And when you can’t sleep, RISE will guide you through a sleep reset so you stay up the right way and have the best chance of falling asleep soon.

You may get a good night’s sleep sooner than you think — 80% of RISE users get more sleep within five days. 

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