What if it’s not actually a sleep problem?

I read this–“Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You”–last week and something completely clicked, and I’ve been thinking about it since then.  Go read it–it’s short–and then come back. (If you don’t want to click to go read it, the summary is that way back before electric lights, humans used to go to bed when it got dark, sleep for four hours, wake up and hang out for an hour or two, then go back to sleep for another four hours. That was normal.)

Think about that. Sleep for four hours. Up for a bit. Then sleep for another four hours. 

What if waking up every night at 3 am (and I know you know what I mean) wasn’t insomnia or a sleep problem, but just the way our bodies are programmed? 

I. Know. 

Think about that. What if we’ve been beating ourselves up about waking up in the middle of the night, and thinking it’s about aging or stress or whatever, when in reality it’s just that our bodies are not adapted to the way we’ve changed our schedules? 

I decided to play around with it for the last few days. So I started going to sleep the first time I thought “I should go to sleep” instead of the fourth or fifth.  Then, when I’d wake up at 3 or 4, instead of immediately trying to figure out what I was worried about, I’d just lie there and think, “Oh, I woke up. My first chunk of sleep is over.” And sometimes I’d figure out how long I’d slept (4-5 hours), and then I’d think about turning on the light and reading a book, and sometimes I’d pray a little, or think about whatever I’m writing, or current events. I let myself see it as extra time. I never managed to actually turn the lights on or get out of bed before falling back asleep. I’d wake up again 3 to 4 hours later.

The only change is that I stopped seeing myself as someone with insomnia. I don’t know if it’s that, or something about being more relaxed during the time I was awake in the middle of the night (I didn’t pay attention but I’d say it was 10-45 minutes each night), but I’m feeling more rested and less stressed during the day. 

Conclusions I’m reaching from this: 

1. If you wake up in the middle of the night every night, it doesn’t mean you have a problem. Experiment with treating it as something that happens because of the way our bodies are wired, and see if that changes how you feel about 3 am and about yourself.

2. If you do like to sleep in one long 8-hour stretch, know that you need to use modern technology to help that, by starting your sleep later than sundown and using cues like electric lights, etc. And if it doesn’t work and you do wake up in the middle of the night, that’s not an abnormality, that’s just that your body hasn’t adapted to one long stretch yet, and you can either keep trying to make it adapt or switch to another schedule. Evolution is fantastic, and if we keep going eventually in another few hundred years humans will all be programmed to sleep for 8 hours. We’re just not there yet, so do what you want to with that info.

3. Babies. Maybe the holy grail of “sleeping through the night” for 8 hours is, in actuality, completely unrealistic. Maybe we should be shooting for three four-hour chunks instead, as long as it’s ok for adults to do two four-hour chunks, too. I have to think a lot more about the ramifications of this for baby sleep, but knowing that 8 hours isn’t the way our bodies were always programmed lets in a lot of space, doesn’t it? 

4. My brother is a super-genius. He’s been waking up in the middle of the night his entire life. But he wakes up, doesn’t stress about it, and then falls back asleep. Every night. He’s 37. I knew he was smart, but he somehow knew this was a feature, not a bug, even as a kid. Younger kids, man…

So, who’s going to try tracking it to see what happens if you just let yourself wake up in the middle of the night, observe but don’t judge, and then sleep another stretch?  Thoughts?

16 thoughts on “What if it’s not actually a sleep problem?”

  1. Ever since I heard an NPR story about "second sleep" in 2006 when our kid was a newborn, I’ve lived "off the grid" regarding modern sleep patterns. Save for a personal experience with a thyroid disease that made it difficult for me to sleep even when I was obviously exhausted–and note the problem VANISHED within days of starting treatment, I’ve had no problems since letting go of the 8-hour norm as my benchmark. (Of course we homeschool and I work at home, so my schedule is a little freer than most 9-to-5 folks with kids in school.)

    I’d love for you to look into the issues related to teenagers having a skewed biological rhythm that allows them to stay up later and need to sleep longer during daylight hours. I think there’s a lesson there, too, Moxie, about "normal".

  2. I know this isn’t really a baby post, but when my 2nd was a newborn, after sleep dep from the first almost killed me, we split up the night into three shifts. My mom took 8-12, I got 12-4, and dad got 4-8. We all got 8 hours of sleep. Perhaps one of the reasons it worked so well is that we are somewhat programmed to be that way anyway.

  3. Our Babies, Ourselves talks about this phenomenon too. (Along with many other commonsense things that Western Culture tries to beat out of us. Though the books is by an anthropologist so when she says it is doesn’t sound judgmental like when I say it.)

  4. A few months ago I read a nonfiction journalistic book on sleep, and one of the chapters focused on this phenomenon. I was reading it during a wonder week, and the whole concept terrified me. The idea that maybe my kid was naturally going to wake up in the middle of the night and need me for HOURS was horrifying. Apparently, I’m not one who gravitates to two sleeps. (She did start sleeping through again, until recently, when we hit 18 months. I may or may not survive this stretch.)

  5. ive been doing this for about 3-4 years. I tried everything to sleep all night, then I just said screw it! I do actually get up, knit or read and sometimes watch a short show. then I go back to sleep. for me, it is completely normal.

  6. I’ve read about this, too, but I’m skeptical that there is an innately better way to sleep that’s been disrupted by modern technology. My main reason for skepticism is that my first and third children both went to a pattern of sleeping for 10 or 11 hours at a stretch fairly early on (don’t shoot me). My second child still routinely wakes up in the middle of the night. So, if anything, I’d believe that there are multiple ways to get a good night’s sleep, and while two chunks is probably one of them, sleeping all night long isn’t just a product of modern living. It’s the "natural" way for some people.

  7. OK, I have nothing special to add to this conception of sleep, but is it acceptable to talk about evolution a little here? Feel free to delete if it’s not. Because my attention was caught by this idea that cultural habits in the present might become "programmed" in the future if we keep doing them long enough. And I’m not sure that’s how evolution works.

    Which is actually just my excuse to describe something I read that I find totally fascinating. Apparently, human evolution in its natural form (absent genetic engineering) might have plateaued, because of population trends and settlement patterns. I think I can explain it better with a story than science per se, so here goes: Think of how northern Europeans evolved to digest lactose. There were small, relatively isolated populations somewhere in Northern Europe. Some person or group of people experienced a spontaneous mutation that allowed them to benefit from milk, either gradually or all at once. If it was gradual, maybe a small hiccup in the genetic code made milk marginally easier to tolerate, and then people with that marginally better tolerance had children whose tolerance was even greater, etc etc. Anyway, these people who could digest milk were stronger/healthier/better able to survive the winter, even if it was just at the margins, and so they were more likely to have grandchildren who passed the milk-digesting genes along. (My mom was taking demographics when I was pregnant and after the kids were born, she sent me an email because I had just made her demographically successful. It’s not your kids, it’s your grandkids who count. Who knew.) Getting back to the point, though, because populations were relatively small/isolated in Northern Europe when all this milk digesting stuff was happening, it didn’t take many generations for the mutation to have a fairly broad effect. In other words, you go from a family to a village to a community of lactose-digesting people relatively fast.

    Here’s the part that blows my mind. There’s a theory that, because we’re not living in isolated communities anymore, it will be much harder for a random mutation to affect any part of the human population in any meaningful way. If I evolve to digest dirt, for example, I might pass that along to my kids and grandkids but they’re such a small part of the population, and there are so many other factors that will affect their ability to pass along THEIR genes, that it’s unlikely that my dirt-digesting genes will have a very large effect.

    So, there’s that: human evolution might have plateaued. But considering this sleep question, there’s also the possibility that, just because more people become habituated to sleep eight hours doesn’t mean that anything has changed with their genes. In fact, nothing may have changed, and that may explain the wakefulness. (I’m actually a little skeptical of the historical evidence in support of night-wakefulness — there may have been just as much diversity of sleep patterns in the historical past as there is now — but that’s not entirely germane here.) If we’re genetically predisposed to sleep with interruptions, then for us to be "programmed to sleep for 8 hours," something would have to change genetically. And also those folks who naturally sleep for a big 8-hour chunk would have to have a reproductive advantage that made them more likely to pass along that genetic shift. And eh, I don’t think there’s any evidence that that’s the case. Sleep patterns don’t seem to play a big role in the conception, birthing, or raising of the next generation in the modern world. Except that we’re all a lot crankier than we should be. But crankiness has not (so far) inhibited reproduction or parenting one’s children to adulthood in most people I know! 🙂

    Seriously. If this is just irritating, please delete! I just find questions of genetic change sort of fascinating.

  8. One extra point: apparently there’s a lot of genetic stuff that’s riding along, not offering any reproductive advantage but paired with something that does offer an advantage. So using the milk example, maybe the mutation that lets you digest milk also makes you more likely to wake up in the night. The night wakefulness doesn’t offer any reproductive advantage, but it just rides along with the milk-digesting stuff that does.

    If that’s the case, then you could have a genetic mutation that happens to increase sleeping periods at night, but it only spreads because it’s paired with something else (resistance to malaria as global warming speeds up, let’s say — although I doubt that makes any chromosomal sense). It could, theoretically, happen.

    Although then we’re right back to the question of how any random mutation could have a large population effect, given modern migration trends.

    Sorry! I swear I’m done!

  9. Two sleeps is how I survived both high school and infancy, actually! In high school, I ran cross country and track and was exhausted by 7:00pm each day. I’d come home from practice, eat dinner, sleep for 4 hrs (7-11pm), get up and do my homework (11pm-2/3am), then go back to sleep for another 3-4 hrs (2/3-6am). My mom thought I was crazy but it totally worked for me. Same deal with the babies. I’d go to bed super early and then take the middle-of-the-night baby duty. I think it didn’t freak me out since I’d made that schedule work as a teenager. Fun to see my quirks validated!

  10. I think one of my friends in college had read something about this when we were upperclassmen. I think he formalized his sleep schedule to be 2-4 hour segments. It really wasn’t comfortable for me because I must hit my REM cycles later — I ended up just shifting my sleep time later – my gang would be in the computer lab from 7pm-2am and then I would sleep from 2 to 10 or 11 and get up for lunch. At that time the commencement exercises were at 8am, which was kind of a shock to the system.

  11. I read that article this weekend and felt like I had a huge burden lifted. I have suffered "insomnia" for years (basically since DS was born 6 years ago) and it involves me waking between 1 – 3, and being awake until 4 or 5 and then going back to sleep for a couple of hours (could probably sleep longer but the kids are up by 7). I have stressed about it so much, like I’m a broken person and I’m never going to sleep ‘properly’ again. And I read this article, and last night when I woke up, I got up, caught up on administrative paperwork and emails, and went back to bed. No stress. Awesome.

  12. I have always woke up in the middle of the night too. My dad always has as well. It doesn’t last long for me, but it has always been there.

  13. I make lunches, prep breakfast and dinner when I wake in the middle of the night. I don’t love it and wish I could sleep 7 hours at a stretch (8 is a long-gone idea because of my body, not my kids) and have to take melatin to get back to sleep, but I do like the hour of quiet meal-prep time.

  14. What this makes me think about in terms of baby/kid sleep is how much of "sleeping through the night" is really the ability to wake up, not stress, and go back to sleep on their own without bothering anybody. That was true with both of mine. The first didn’t do it until she was well into her 5th year, and the second (now 2.5) is just now learning it–he asks for a drink of water and then conks out again, no drama. Kind of validates the idea that "self-soothing" is key to good sleep (or what we call "good," meaning sleep that doesn’t wake up the parents)–except that #2 has gone to sleep happily on his own at bedtime for a long time but still freaked out at 2-4 AM until recently.

  15. I sleep really "well" as measured by Western standards (and me!). But I’m pretty sure that if I slept in humans’ Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, I wouldn’t sleep with the same pattern at all. Forget electricity as an innovation, what about mattresses? Conversely, of course, I’d be getting a lot more exercise and eating a very different diet, and that too would likely change things (I’d also probably be dead from old age if nothing else, but I digress).

    But, sure, if the key point is: find a way to work within the parts of the pattern that are outside our control, I’m all for it, whatever the influences of the different factors shaping those things.

  16. Used to work a 3am-11am bakery shift. I’d wake up at 2:30 with just enough time to get to work (breakfast on the job), and crash immediately upon getting home. I’ve never had a problem sleeping in the daytime, I’d usually just sleep on the couch. After 3-4 hours I’d wake up, just in time to have the same "evening" as the rest of the world. I’d go to sleep at the same time as everyone else, around 10, but only sleep 4-ish hours before getting up for work.

    I LOVED this schedule! When I got married, my husband hated it – he had a hard time with me getting up in the middle of his night. I switched to a "normal" schedule to accomodate him, but now that I have an infant I find myself drifting towards 2-shift sleep again. She eats at 1am and 5am and usually sleeps till about 7am which is when we all get up. I’m thinking I’ll try going to bed at our normal time of 10pm, but get up at 5 after feeding the baby and then take her morning nap with her.

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