Counting sheep at 3:00 a.m.

You’d think that after 60 years, I’d be better at this. But, with all the practice I’ve had, I still have trouble getting an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

I am actually very good at falling asleep. Not long after my head hits the pillow, I’m out. If my husband stays up later than I do, I’m often not aware of him coming to bed. I’m also pretty good at staying asleep for the first four or five hours. The problem usually starts around 3:00 or 3:30 am, when my evil internal alarm clock goes off and I wake up. Then, my thoughts start ricocheting around my brain like steel balls in a cranial pinball machine and all hope for sleep over the next hour or so is dashed.

I really need one of these shops in my neighborhood.
If there was one of these shops in my neighborhood I’d have it on speed-dial.

When I was a student, my nocturnal gnashing of neurons focused on homework or tests, or maybe on some personal issue I was dealing with. After I entered the work world, my relentless ruminations turned to projects, deadlines, and, often, some upcoming presentation I had to make.

Naively, I thought that when I retired these slumber-stealing shenanigans would vanish along with my stress. I should have known that, just as they did when I made the transition from school to work, my 3:00 am wake-up calls would continue to nudge my noggin into nighttime deliberations, only the topics would change. Now, my REM is interrupted with obsessive, mostly non-productive thoughts about upcoming travel, current creative pursuits, or unfinished household projects. Certainly more pleasant subject matter, but the disturbance to my sleep cycle is still the same.

The good news, of course, is that, now that I’m retired I can sleep in a bit to help make up for the divot made in my sleep requirements. I don’t have an alarm clock urging me out of bed at 6:30 am; if I need an extra hour or two in bed, I can usually have them. Unfortunately, what I give up when I sleep in are my early mornings, which I love. I enjoy the quiet and the golden light of the low hanging sun. It is also my favorite time to lace up my tennies and take a walk.

Obviously I’m not the only one with this problem. An Amazon search of “books on insomnia” yields over 2,990 titles. Some are scientific, some are holistic. I saw several coloring books that promise nighttime relaxation. There is even a Stephen King novel titled Insomnia, but I don’t think reading that before bedtime would be a very good idea.

I have read that as we get older, a full night’s sleep often becomes even more elusive so I’m probably stuck with my almost nightly habit. At least now my 3:00 am thoughts are, for the most part, not products of anxiety but, instead, focused on more enjoyable topics… unless I’m struggling to come up with an idea for my next blog post.

Author: Janis @

My blog is about travel, relationships, photography, and whatever else pops into my head (even, sometimes, issues surrounding retirement and aging).

31 thoughts on “Counting sheep at 3:00 a.m.”

  1. “I think I’ll retire for the evening,” is a misnomer, as morning comes quicker as the years add up. My holistic approach to pre-sunrise sleep divestiture, is to sell the evening short with a sip or two of small batch bourbon. Sweet Dreams.

  2. I hear you loud and clear, Sister. Even though we’re in different time zones, I too am habitually awake almost like clockwork around 3:30 each morning. I toss and turn and eventually do get back to sleep sometime between 4:00 and 4:30. In my case I’ve found some relief with an essential oil called Marjoram, which I have by my bedside to uncap and take a few sniffs. Also, I cut Ibuprofen in half and keep them in a little Dixie cup at bedside– for some reason a half works like a sleeping pill at that hour. Finally, sometimes I just think to myself that it doesn’t matter if I go back to sleep or not, I’m just going to lay here with my eyes closed so that I’ll rest. Usually that works too and I do eventually fall asleep again. But from 3:30 to 4:00am, I am *not* a happy camper.

    1. I was hoping that I would get a few suggestions of ways others deal with this issue. I’ve never tried Marjoram but maybe I should. Sometimes I take half a Tylenol PM, but I try not to go that way if I can help it. Wishing you a great night’s sleep tonight!

  3. I have had short bouts of insomnia over the last few years, due to the big M. My only interruption now is when my dogs need to go out for their nocturnal pit-stop. Hope you can nip this in the bud, or plan to be up at 3! Think how much writing you can do then 😉

    1. Sometime as I am tossing and turning I think I should just get up but I’m afraid that it would ruin any hope of ever getting back to sleep. At least I’m semi-resting when I’m horizontal. I’m glad that you don’t have the same problem!

    1. Getting to bed earlier can help a bit. At least when I wake up at 3:00, I’ve had an extra hour or so of sleep than usual. Maybe I should open up an Insomnia Cookies franchise… at least I’d have something to do in the middle of night!

  4. I usually have no trouble sleeping straight through for 8-9 hours, but this past week I have struggled with acute bronchitis and asthma. The constant sleep interruptions are awful and I feel bad for all my friends who can’t sleep through the night. Can’t wait to feel better.

  5. I didn’t have any issues sleeping until I hit 60. For many years I had the 3 a.m. thing going on. When I got up in the morning I’d be exhausted causing me to nap in the afternoon. My whole system got out of whack. I’m on one med (for something else) and I found (accidentally) that if I take it before bed I sleep through the night (my doc just raised his eyebrows when I told him). It’s wonderful! On the other hand my husband has never been able to sleep more than 5 hours straight, even when he was a kid. He has all the prescription meds and they don’t work for him. I don’t know why they haven’t come up with better solutions that don’t involve addictive medications. Things are scary at 3 a.m. Everything is worse.

    1. It seems like there are things you can take to get to sleep, which isn’t my problem at all. I’m afraid to take anything in the middle of the night because I’m concerned the effects would last past the time I want to get up. I hate taking medications but it sounds like you have hit on a good outcome. Since you have to take it anyway, why not also have it help you sleep through the night!

  6. The frustrating middle-of-the-night monkey-brain!! Like you, I’ve had this problem most of my life. Often I will just get up and read, sometimes for hours and then drag myself through the next day like a zombie.
    … and I’ve written many blog posts in my head at 3am, but only rarely ever followed through on one.

    1. Haha! Monkey-brain. That is exactly what it feels like! Yeah, the middle-of-the-night blog post ideas are seldom as good when they see the light of day. I did come up with the name of my blog during a bout of sleeplessness, though. I was happy that I still liked it in the morning.

  7. I don’t suffer this as often as you. What I found works for me is to write down notes on whatever is running through my head. I keep a pad of paper next to my bed. I don’t turn on the lights, or put on my glasses. Sometimes in the morning I can barely read the scibbles! But it gets whatever – the item on the to do list, the great line for a blog post – out of my head. What is it about 3:30 AM?

    1. I agree that writing my random thoughts down can help. It seems to stop the ever-looping brain track I’m on. I don’t know what it is about 3:30 am, it’s funny how it appears to be the time most people who have a problem wake up.

  8. I can’t sleep through the night either. And it’s usually the 3:00 – 3:30 AM time slot that finds me awake. I used to get really mad, saying things to myself like “I’m so damn tired!” Why am I awake? This sucks!” but now I just lay there calmly, waiting to go back to sleep. Generally about 4:30, I fall asleep again. I don’t like being awake in the middle of the night, but there seems to be little I can do about it. I even wake up when I take Excedrin PM or a Benadryl. My wake/sleep cycle seems to be able to overcome even these drugs! Thanks for writing about this old age insomnia. Now I don’t feel so alone in this problem.

    1. I’m amazed how many people suffer from the same problem – you are definitely not alone! And, it’s always 3:00 or 3:30… I wonder if there something in our brains left over from our prehistoric ancestors that made sense in their world but not in ours.

  9. Ugh! Insomnia is the worst. When I was working I’d fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply through the night. I think I was just exhausted. Now that I’m retired I toss and turn a lot, probably because I sleep in an hour or so longer. I refuse to set an alarm anymore so I’m probably stuck with the tossing and turning. I usually take an aspirin and a little milk before bedtime and that seems to help. Thanks for sharing this, Janis. It’s such a common complaint. Wishing you sweet dreams.

  10. I have the same issue and it annoys me no end! Sleeping is one
    of my favorite activities (always has been) and I was so looking forward to 8+ hours of uninterrupted slumber every night after retiring. NOT! Besides not being able to nap anymore, I need to be very tired to fall asleep, and even then I have my 3 AM wake up and mull something/anything over time. But, as you say, at least I’m no longer gnashing my teeth in the wee hours over some awful work-related headache!

    1. I guess it was just wishful thinking that as soon as the stress of working was over I’d be able to have 8 hours of blissful sleep every night. I have a friend who could sleep through anything… even a train that came through a campsite we were in during the middle of the night. My mom was also a good sleeper… unfortunately, I took after my dad in this area.

  11. Well, don’t judge me now, but I live in Colorado, so I take a different type of cookie at night. One that works perfectly, knocks me out and yet I can still get up and make that trip to the next room should I need to. I’ve now taking to packing them in ziploc bags where ever I go!

    1. No judging here! If I remember correctly, when I was younger and did that sort of thing, I’d get the munchies before I felt drowsy. Maybe taking your bedtime “medicine” in cookie form kills two birds with one stone!

  12. I apologize if you had multiple messages from me by the way, I am still learning how to log in on some non blogger websites.

  13. 2:30 is my witching hour; other than the difference in the hour, the story sounds all too familiar. We keep the bed in the spare room made up, so I can move next door and read until I drift off again. This is the only solution I’ve found for all of the silly things swirling around in my head (or “galloping brain” as my aunt calls the condition).

    After talking to contemporaries, older sisters, my mom, and my aunt, I’ve decided I might as well learn to cope with the inability to sleep through the night. As you say, it seems a very common condition.

    I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the option to sleep in a little longer, once I return to sleep. I, too, regret missing the early morning hours, but the need for sleep overwhelms my desire to get up with the birds.

    1. I also love to be able to sleep in but I really miss getting up early and seeing the wonderful morning light. I am sometimes tempted to get up and read when I have spent awhile tossing and turning but I’m afraid I’d get hooked on the book and sleep would be even more elusive. I seem to go through phases… unfortunately, I’m currently in a sleep-deprived one. Yawn…

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: