Sleep is tricky. There may be times when you need to touch or move someone, but they’re sleeping. Disturbing them is out of the question, but you really need to move them back to a comfortable position or remove them from danger. So how do you touch them without waking them up?

Everyone has a different sensitivity level and a different level of sleep, so it’s hard to know for sure what will work for each individual person. However, here are some tips for touching someone without waking them up. Let’s take a look.

Babies

Ah, babies. Their little hands and feet. Their sweet faces. Their screams when they’re hungry or uncomfortable. Wait.

If you have a baby, you know for sure that the last thing you want to do is wake your baby up when you don’t have to. What happens when you need to move the baby or take the baby’s temperature while sleeping? You aren’t doomed.

The first thing to do is to check your baby’s eyes. You have a much better chance of making sure that the baby doesn’t wake up if he’s in a deep sleep. His eyes will be darting underneath his eyelids if he’s in REM sleep. To double check, you can try moving his arm by gently picking it up and dropping it from a small distance. If he doesn’t wake up then, you’re probably ok to move him.

If you try to move your baby too soon and she begins to wake up, you can gently pat or jiggle her tummy until she goes back to sleep and relaxes again. Once she’s breathing regularly and deeply, you can try to move her once again. As you move her, make sure to keep contact with her once you put her down again to help ease the transition. Holding your hand on her tummy for a few seconds can settle her into the new position without her waking up.

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Sleeping Partners

If your partner has a tendency to migrate to the other side of the bed or to snore, you may need to have a way to move them without waking them up, so you don’t start an argument in the middle of the night. It can be a pain to have a sleep deprived partner, but it’s even more of a pain for a sleep deprived you.

Movement during the night is an evolutionary adaptation that scientists believe helps protect us from things like pressure sores. You can take advantage of this natural inclination to move by encouraging your partner to shift when they begin to take over the bed.

The first thing you could do is gently push the other person to encourage them to turn over. Begin with a light touch and increase the pressure until they move the part of their body that’s in the way. If it’s a leg, gently push their leg out of the way. If it’s their whole body, push their back or shoulder to encourage that natural inclination to turn over.

If your partner is snoring, a gentle push may also be just the thing to readjust and relieve the pressure on their soft palate. Follow the same type of process, starting with a gentle touch and increasing in pressure until they move over. Be sure you’re paying attention to signs of them waking up such as a change in breathing or little movements in their body that suggest wakefulness.

If nothing else, communicating with your partner before you fall asleep can help relieve any of the tension should they wake up to you trying to move them over. Communication can always help make intentions clearer and avoid conflict if you accidentally move too hard and wake your partner up.

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Sleeping Patients

If you’re a healthcare worker, getting vitals and moving patients into a proper position can be stressful enough. When they’re sleeping, there are times when you just don’t want to wake them up. Following a few different steps to help move things along.

If your patient is sleeping and you just need to take some vitals, gently checking their eyelids can help determine if they’re in a deep enough sleep to touch. Eyes that are darting rapidly underneath their lids can indicate REM sleep. To test if they’re genuinely asleep, you can try lifting their arm gently and dropping it onto the bed from an inch or two up to see if that disturbs them. If not, you should be ok.

You can move very slowly to take things like vital signs, gently applying light pressure and then increased pressure as you go through your movements. Maintaining contact with a point of pressure can also help. If you feel for their pulse, keeping your hand on their wrist as you gently move up the arm to check blood pressure could help keep them sleeping peacefully.

If you need to move the patient altogether, for example back into the recovery position, you can start with the first steps above. Check their eyes for movement and that their breathing is deep and regular. Begin with a light touch that increases in pressure as you gently begin moving them into position. Maintaining contact as you touch the patient can help reduce the impact of each progressive touch.

You can also use a person’s natural inclination to turn to your advantage. Encourage this inclination through gentle, sustained pressure. Begin with a light touch and increase the strength until the patient begins to move on their own. Keep contact as you move limbs to follow their natural turning. When you place limbs into the right position, hold them for a few seconds after the limb is in place before letting go to help reduce the impact of the movement.

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A Note About Touching Someone

You should never use these techniques to touch someone without their consent. Regardless of your relationship with that person, it can be invasive to their privacy and violate bodily autonomy if you try to touch someone while they’re sleeping when you know they wouldn’t want you to otherwise.

Partners should talk to each other about sleeping issues so that if something happens during the night, both parties understand that the touch is warranted and accepted. It’s not your chance to touch someone without them knowing.

Healthcare workers do sometimes have a need to move or touch patients while they’re sleeping, but again, this is a situation where the patient has been fully informed about what might happen and the reasons it would happen. They have the chance to refuse care and be part of their entire treatment plan. This is usually a unique situation in which patients have already consented to certain levels of treatment and know that some may happen while they’re sleeping.

Final Thoughts

Moving someone during the night doesn’t mean an automatic wake up. By taking advantage of the body’s natural inclination to move to relieve pressure can go a long way to getting your spot back on the bed or alleviating your partner’s snoring.

You also aren’t stuck with waking a baby up either. It’s possible to move the baby without disturbing sleep. Likewise, you aren’t stuck with a crabby sleep deprived patient the next morning. Some things can happen during sleep if you move slowly, maintain contact, and test for deep sleep first. Be sure you have consent, and you should be fine.

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