Sleep in Shifts?

From David K. Randall, discussing the sometimes heard that sleeping in shifts might be best:

Any stories? Kris and I both wake up every night, sometimes for just a few minutes but often for 30 minutes or more. How about you?

Typically, mention of our ever increasing sleeplessness is followed by calls for earlier bedtimes and a longer night’s sleep. But this directive may be part of the problem. Rather than helping us to get more rest, the tyranny of the eight-hour block reinforces a narrow conception of sleep and how we should approach it. Some of the time we spend tossing and turning may even result from misconceptions about sleep and our bodily needs: in fact neither our bodies nor our brains are built for the roughly one-third of our lives that we spend in bed.

The idea that we should sleep in eight-hour chunks is relatively recent. The world’s population sleeps in various and surprising ways. Millions of Chinese workers continue to put their heads on their desks for a nap of an hour or so after lunch, for example, and daytime napping is common from India to Spain.

One of the first signs that the emphasis on a straight eight-hour sleep had outlived its usefulness arose in the early 1990s, thanks to a history professor at Virginia Tech named A. Roger Ekirch, who spent hours investigating the history of the night and began to notice strange references to sleep. A character in the “Canterbury Tales,” for instance, decides to go back to bed after her “firste sleep.” A doctor in England wrote that the time between the “first sleep” and the “second sleep” was the best time for study and reflection. And one 16th-century French physician concluded that laborers were able to conceive more children because they waited until after their “first sleep” to make love. Professor Ekirch soon learned that he wasn’t the only one who was on to the historical existence of alternate sleep cycles. In a fluke of history, Thomas A. Wehr, a psychiatrist then working at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., was conducting an experiment in which subjects were deprived of artificial light. Without the illumination and distraction from light bulbs, televisions or computers, the subjects slept through the night, at least at first. But, after a while, Dr. Wehr noticed that subjects began to wake up a little after midnight, lie awake for a couple of hours, and then drift back to sleep again, in the same pattern of segmented sleep that Professor Ekirch saw referenced in historical records and early works of literature.

It seemed that, given a chance to be free of modern life, the body would naturally settle into a split sleep schedule. Subjects grew to like experiencing nighttime in a new way. Once they broke their conception of what form sleep should come in, they looked forward to the time in the middle of the night as a chance for deep thinking of all kinds, whether in the form of self-reflection, getting a jump on the next day or amorous activity. Most of us, however, do not treat middle-of-the-night awakenings as a sign of a normal, functioning brain.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Drew

    This post reminds me of a Seinfeld episode where Kramer adopts the so-called sleep habits of Da Vinci in order to facilitate creativity. Hilarious.

  • Jennwith2ns

    Too bad I didn’t know this when I was an insomniac teenager.

  • Amanda Harrison

    Interesting article, I’ve read something similar before. As a medical sleep professional, I would recommend making an appointment for an evaluation with a sleep physician. There are many sleep disorders, however, some more common than others in the general population. Some sleep disorders are very taxing to not only your energy level but also your overall health.

  • Henriet Schapelhouman

    Since I’ve had insomniac teenagers in my house I’ve been shift sleeping. Not sure if it’s natural, due to noises or plain fear about what’s going on out there!

    Most people I know that are older than 30ish seem to deal with sleeping in shifts. I wake up for bathroom breaks, at the end of strange dreams and sometimes just randomly. If I don’t fall back asleep quickly, I use it to pray for whomever comes to mind.

    Thanks for pointing this out, Scot. Maybe we will all rest better not worrying about what’s “wrong” when we sleep in shifts.

  • Margaret

    so fascinating! Never knew about the “first” and “second” sleep before. I wonder how our lives would change if we adjusted our view on sleep?

  • Shane Scott

    Well, I am at the age where “first sleep” and “second sleep” are what I do before and after I have to get up to use the bathroom! :-)

    But I do think the effect of technology on our biorhythms is fascinating to consider!

  • Ted M. Gossard

    I like this. I hardly ever ever sleep eight hours in a row, and I would be considered by a good number of people, sleep deprived, which may have some truth in it. Yet characteristically I do fall asleep for a time in the evening, before the longer sleep later.

    And I wish our culture was attune to early afternoon naps. The afternoon is the most difficult part of my day, and I think a half hour nap after lunch would probably do wonders for me. So interesting about the Chinese of whom I heard recently have much enthusiasm and creativity in their work, their entrepreneurs.

  • DRT

    I have been following this idea for some time (the research referenced). I used to stress out when I awoke in the middle of the night because I thought I would not be able to sleep again, but this has allowed me to see it as natural and I can go back to sleep after a shift break easily now.

  • Dan Reid

    I’ve read about this before, and it makes sense in various ways–including the background for Jesus’ parable of the friend at midnight. In other words, people got up and did stuff between first sleep and second sleep.

  • Tom

    My son tried polyphasic sleep when he was a freshmen in college. He used the Everyman Pattern with one 3.5 hour episode of sleep and 3 – 20 minute naps throughout the day. He was doing fairly well until one day he hit the snooze on his alarm and woke up 2 hours later, late for an exam. That explained to his prof. (including giving him a link to the blog where he was charting it) and the prof. accommodated him. But that was the end of his experiment.

  • Jim Martin

    Can I relate to this post! I often wake up in the middle of the night and am up for 30 min to an hour. I then go back to sleep. Also, I often take a 15-20 minute immediately after lunch.

  • Jim Martin

    Somehow I left off the word “nap” in the last sentence.

  • Adam Legler

    I love waking up in the middle of the night to listen to radio programs I don’t normally hear, catch up on podcasts, or get some work done. I wish our bodies were programmed for it to be a regular thing.

  • John M.

    Does the historic first and second sleep have any relationship to praying the hours? David spoke in the Psalms as rising at midnight to pray. Of course that would require going to sleep three or four hours before midnight. That seems to be the main problem in a technological world — getting to bed earlier.