Restless Sleep: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment Options

Most people can relate to the aggravation associated with struggling to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get adequate sleep. Unfortunately, poor sleep is not just annoying — it can impact your daily life, how you interact with others, and your long-term health.

The good news is that while sleep problems are common, there are steps you can take to improve your sleep patterns and overall quality of life. Here's what you need to know about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for restless sleep.

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What is restless sleep?

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), there is no concrete definition of restless sleep. Because it is not an identified sleep disorder, its meaning is largely subjective. Even so, there is a general understanding of how restless sleep looks and feels.

How restless sleep is identified depends on whether you're experiencing it or observing its symptoms in someone else. 

You may be experiencing restless sleep if you have one or more of the following signs:

  • Feeling like you're half-asleep or not sleeping deeply

  • Frequent tossing and turning

  • Experiencing racing thoughts

  • Feeling irritated that you can't sleep soundly

  • Waking up unexpectedly

  • Struggling to fall back to sleep

  • Feeling tired or mentally foggy during the day

If you're observing someone who you suspect is sleeping restlessly, you may notice one or more of the following signs:

  • Frequent tossing and turning

  • Waking up unintentionally

  • Making gasping or choking sounds while snoring loudly

  • Sleepwalking or noticeable limb movements

  • Sleep talking or yelling

  • Teeth grinding during sleep (bruxism)

While many people share common symptoms, everyone experiences restless sleep differently. Your restless sleep may trigger different symptoms than someone else's, and some people are more affected by poor sleep than others.

How is restless sleep different from insomnia?

Insomnia¹ is a common sleep disorder that makes it difficult for an individual to fall asleep, stay asleep, or fall back asleep when they wake unexpectedly. As a result, many people with insomnia wake up tired or groggy. It's normal for adults to experience occasional insomnia lasting a few days or weeks.

Short-term insomnia typically results from a traumatic event or stress. In contrast, some people experience chronic long-term insomnia that can last for months at a time.

While insomnia is a problem in itself, it can also indicate the presence of another physical or psychological condition. People with insomnia may experience restless sleep; however, not all people who struggle with restless sleep will experience insomnia. 

What causes restless sleep?

Many situations can lead to restless sleep, and a situation that affects sleep in one person may not have any negative effects in another. However, there are a number of common causes that can make a person more likely to struggle with restless sleep. These include:

  • Lifestyle choices: Consuming alcohol or too much caffeine, using nicotine products, making poor dietary choices, or having too much stimulation before bedtime

  • Racing mind: Feeling excited, stressed, or worried, or experiencing mental health issues (such as anxiety or depression)

  • Sleep habits: Poor sleep hygiene or an inconsistent sleep schedule

  • Environmental factors: Excessive cold or heat, too much light or noise, an uncomfortable mattress, or noise disturbances

  • Medical conditions: Sleep disorders (such as sleep apnea), restless leg syndrome, or hormonal changes

  • Physical factors: Having to urinate frequently, experiencing chronic physical pain, or lacking exposure to natural light

  • Other influences: Work schedule, jet lag, or a misaligned circadian rhythm

How does restless sleep affect age groups differently?

Restless sleep can affect anyone, regardless of age or medical history. However, like many conditions, restless sleep may affect different age groups differently.

Because the sleep needs and patterns of infants, children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly vary, it's no surprise that each age group is uniquely affected.

How does restless sleep affect infants?

The sleep patterns of children under one year are very different from older children, and managing restless sleep in infants can be exceptionally challenging. First, it's important to note that babies need around 16 to 17 hours of sleep each day. While they may be sleeping off-and-on at all hours of the day, they will cycle through rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep.

If your baby shows signs of restless sleep, such as tossing and turning, it's best to avoid picking them up right away. Instead, give them the opportunity to transition back into a deep sleep state. Eventually, your baby will be able to sleep for longer stretches during the night and take fewer short naps during the day.

How does restless sleep affect children?

The American Academy of Pediatrics states that as many as 25% to 50%² of children experience problems sleeping. When a child doesn't get enough sleep, it's common for them to behave abnormally. They're often grumpy, hyperactive, and unable to pay attention.

Beyond the difficult-to-deal-with moods, poor sleep in children can lead to health issues, such as a compromised immune system. The first step to helping your child overcome sleeping troubles is to know how much sleep they need based on their age:

  • Toddlers (between ages 1 and 2): 11–14 hours per day

  • Preschoolers (between ages 3 and 5): 10–13 hours per day

  • School-aged children (between ages 6 and 12): 9–12 hours per day

If your child's total sleep falls well below these recommendations, it's best to consult their pediatrician to determine what might be causing their poor sleeping habits and create an individualized treatment plan to resolve any underlying issues. 

How does restless sleep affect teenagers?

Sleep deprivation is common among adolescents. Often affected by busy schedules, including homework, sports, and extracurricular activities, getting a full night's sleep can be difficult, and teenagers' circadian rhythms are frequently disrupted. Like young children, teenagers who don't get enough sleep may feel tired or moody and find it harder to perform routine daily activities, including schoolwork.

For a teen to function at their best, they should get between eight and ten hours of sleep every night. Unfortunately, the daily stresses of teenage life, such as exams and social obligations, along with environmental factors, such as overusing technology, lead to staying up late, waking up early, and not getting the sleep they need.

How does restless sleep affect the elderly?

Older adults usually don't spend as much time in deep sleep stages, leading to disrupted and less restorative sleep. Shifts in their natural circadian rhythm can also cause seniors to wake up earlier in the morning than they want to.

Along with biological changes that come with age, restless sleep can develop in older people who aren't getting enough sunlight during the day, as well as those who take certain medications for other health conditions. 

The benefits of restless sleep

No one wants to sleep poorly; however, in some cases, restless sleep may not be entirely bad. For instance, moving around while you sleep can prevent bed sores, which form in response to having too much weight placed on a specific area of your body for an extended amount of time. This is particularly beneficial for individuals who spend a lot of their time lying down, including people who are chronically ill or elderly.

Additionally, not sleeping well can serve as an early indicator of a physical or mental concern that needs to be addressed and treated. For example, it's common for individuals who feel anxious or unusually stressed to move around, talk, or even walk in their sleep. When this happens, it lets the person who experiences it (or a loved one who notices it) know that something out of the ordinary is going on and should be addressed.

Likewise, symptoms of restless sleep could result from health issues that could lead to complications. Heart disease and sleep apnea are two conditions that can cause restless sleep and require prompt treatment.

What are the best ways to address restless sleep?

The first step to improving your quality of sleep and battling restless sleep is to identify the root cause. If your poor sleep isn’t triggered by something overt, such as workplace stress, your healthcare provider can help pin down the cause. Other proactive steps you can take include:

  • Promoting relaxation by cultivating a quiet environment, lying in a comfortable position, and investing in a quality mattress

  • Implementing a pre-bedtime routine to help prepare your mind and body for bed by:

  • Engaging in relaxing activities in the 30 minutes leading up to bedtime

  • Turning off your electronics

  • Putting on comfortable clothing

  • Dimming the lights

  • Lowering the temperature in your bedroom

  • Limiting late-night snacks, caffeine, and alcohol

  • Establishing a sleep schedule that you stick to every night, including weekends

  • Incorporating physical activity into your daily routine

  • Keeping a sleep diary to document trends you notice that may influence your sleep patterns 

Why does sleep hygiene matter?

Sleep hygiene refers to a set of environmental and behavioral guidelines thought to promote better sleep. Healthy sleep hygiene habits prepare your mind and body to sleep well. It's essential to note that good sleep hygiene is not intended to treat sleeping disorders, although it may be part of a person’s personalized treatment plan.

Sleep hygiene is important because insufficient sleep on a regular basis can lead to an array of short-term and long-term problems, such as:

  • Increased stress

  • Mood disorders

  • Lower pain tolerance

  • Performance and memory issues

  • Serious health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease

While poor sleep can drastically affect your quality of life and health, it’s never too late to improve your sleep and regain control.

When to see a doctor

If healthy sleep hygiene habits don’t improve your sleep quality or if your restless sleep happens frequently or worsens over time, don't hesitate to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. Trouble sleeping could be a sign of another health condition.

Even if your sleep is sufficient in duration, there could be other indicators that your sleep habits are suboptimal, such as poor focus and grogginess. These concerns are worth mentioning to your healthcare provider. Identifying the cause of your restless sleep is the best way to resolve it, and your healthcare provider can help.

The lowdown

Restless sleep is a common concern that affects people of all ages. While it's not recognized as a specific sleep disorder, some symptoms and causes are prominent among people with the issue. If you’re struggling with restless sleep, there are steps that you can take to improve your condition.

These include practicing good sleep hygiene habits, striving to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, staying physically active, keeping a sleep diary, and working closely with your healthcare provider to determine the cause of your sleeping problems.

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