From the time we’re out of our mother’s womb and into the larger world, we’re encouraged, manipulated, and rocked and cuddled into sleeping through the night.
Indeed, sleeping through the night is considered, by most lay and expert individuals alike, to be a major physical and neurological maturity milestone in an infant’s life.
And we only go on from there, assuming an unbroken eight hours of rest to be normal and blaming urinary issues, stress, growth spurts and more for those times we do awaken at night.
It seems as though sleeping through the night is expected; anything else is, from the age of three to six months onward, considered downright unnatural. But what if everything we think we know about sleeping through the night is wrong – and even contrary to what our biology requires of us?
More Than Nine-Tenths of Our History Was NOT Spent Sleeping Through the Night, Researchers Claim
The genus Homo (we are, currently, Homo sapiens sapiens) has been around, as far as archaeologists can ascertain, for about 250,000 years.
Yet until very recently in our history, people did NOT sleep a straight 8-10 hours, academia is now revealing.
Roger Ekirch, Virginia Tech Department of History professor and author of the 2001 essay “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles,” notes that all the way up until early modern Europe and the U.S., people engaged in what he terms “segmented sleep,” with a period of “quiet wakefulness” for approximately an hour in the early morning.
Ekirch says this type of broken sleep was still, at the time of the publication of his study, practiced in a number of locales across the globe, including groups in Brazil, Central America, and Nigeria.
A Technological Shift
Why don’t we sleep in this way anymore, if the overwhelming majority of our history was naturally spent in broken sleep during the night?
Ekirch says artificial lighting of a strength similar to that we experience during daytime is a recent phenomenon, heralded by the general use of electricity, and has extended our evenings into periods of heightened wakefulness.
This means we feel the need to catch up on sleep when we finally get there, and waking is considered unusual rather than the norm that would occur when getting sleepy by candlelight after 7 or 8pm through an early rise of 5 or 6am.
So how are we adjusting? A daunting number of individuals in the U.S. and other industrialized nations seem to be losing out on sleep and its benefits, and the effect is only increasing. But so far, there’s no way to know this is directly related to comparatively new sleep patterns v. our historical way of sleeping.
However, of note is that quantity seems to be the area of concern more so than quantity, so a change in sleep as opposed to how our ancestors hit the mat at night could be part of the puzzle of modern society’s sleep issues.
Getting Back to Basics for Better Sleep
Your best bet: turn off the electronics at night and allow yourself AT LEAST one electronics-free (or as low electronic as possible; i.e., keep one or two low lights on) hour prior to bedtime. Get to bed earlier and if you wake during the night, ride it out while relaxing and having a little daydream. If you fall back asleep, great – wake up at your normal time for your day.
By making small changes and reducing artificial influences such as electric light, who knows – you may experience your best sleep ever.