Even as a child I hated waking up early in the morning. Something about being startled out of a deep sleep by a clanging alarm made me feel disoriented and lonely. Alas, now, as a working mother, I often have to wake early -- to fit in a workout, check business emails, or make preparations for my children's school days.
I still don't like it.
For many of us, getting up before we would naturally is painful -- because it's too early, too sudden, or too dark. Is there a path to kinder, gentler awakenings? Yes, say sleep experts, but forging it is equal parts art and science.
Humans go through four to six "sleep cycles" every night. Each cycle consists of five stages, ranging from very light sleep (stage 1) to very deep sleep (stage 4) and then the rapid eye movement stage, during which you are most likely to dream.
Waking up out of a deep stage 3 or stage 4 sleep is notoriously difficult. That's why being awakened from a nap can be so disorienting. It's also why waking too early in the morning can mean a miserable start to your day. "Most people hit their deepest sleep between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.," says WebMD sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD, D, ABSM, "so it's very hard to wake up during that time."
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
If you can avoid waking that early, the next step is to figure out what time you should go to bed to get a good night's rest. Sleep cycles take, on average, about 90 minutes. "That means you need about 7.5 hours of sleep each night," Breus says, "and if you count backwards from when you have to wake up, you can figure out what time you need to go to sleep in order to wake more easily."
Of course, some people require six hours of sleep a night, while others need nine. To complicate matters further, sleep cycles range from 90 minutes to two hours. That's where the "art" part of easy awakenings comes in. "Most people haven't been told what time to go to bed since they were children," Breus says. "So they have to listen to their body's own rhythms to figure it out."
After talking to Breus, I decided to stop trying to rise before 6 a.m. And since I have to get up at 7 a.m. to see my kids off to school, I made a firm "lights out at 11" rule for myself. Surprisingly, it works. After holding to this schedule for two weeks, I feel more rested, more relaxed, and more alert during the day.
Tips for Waking Up
Set your alarm for the latest possible moment so you're not tempted to fall back asleep.
Lose the snooze button. You might go back to sleep for a few minutes each time you hit the knob, "but you're getting crappy sleep," Breus says. "You just feel worse."
Sit up and swing your legs over the side of the bed.
Breathe deeply three or four times to orient yourself to the real world.
Exercise first thing in the morning to energize your mind and body and boost your fitness. But don't choose exercise over getting the sleep you need.