Sleeping Across Cultures (Sleep Like A Baby #2)

by cbcabeen on January 8, 2011

This is the second part of “How To Sleep Like a Baby.”  If you missed it, the first part is here.

Parents don’t discuss their own sleep patterns in sleep deprivation posts because we as a culture take it for granted that interrupted sleep sucks, so no one feels the need to explain what’s bad about it.  From there, the burden of fixing parental sleep shifts to getting rid of the interruptions.  But this approach to interrupted sleep is relatively new in human history, and it isn’t the only way to deal with the problem.

Our bodies should be able to adjust reasonably well to more frequent wakings, because that’s how humans evolved to sleep.  Like the electric light, the unbroken night’s sleep is a modern Western invention.  Historically we’ve slept together in groups, had more babies, and slept with those babies in those groups–you do the math.  One of my friends did fieldwork in areas of Nepal and China where contemporary families sleep together at night, and she assures me that they were not chronically sleep-deprived as a result.  They’d gotten better than we are at sleeping through disruptions, or stirring briefly and going back to sleep.

They may also have approached sleep differently than we do.  In addition to brief disruptions throughout the night, people often wake up for a longer stretch, too, at least during the winter.  Psychiatrist Thomas Wehr ran a study showing that people exposed to long nights without artificial light tend to take their night’s sleep in two main chunks separated by a quiet wakeful period, as do many other mammals.  According to historian A. Roger Ekirch, preindustrial Europeans kept a “watching” hour in the middle of the night and used it about how you’d expect: praying, talking, thinking about dreams, being glad not to be working, smoking, playing cards by candlelight, getting sexy, stealing fruit from other people’s trees, and so on.  What’s more, preindustrial Europeans prized this free hour in the middle of the night enough to keep it even though they were apparently relatively short on sleep.  Anthropologist Carol Worthman notes a similar sleep pattern among traditional cultures including the !Kung, Ache, Balinese, and Pashtun.    Both Worthman’s and Ekirch’s descriptions suggest that the people they study woke many times during the night due to minor disruptions and discomforts.  A lot of minor rousing plus one longer waking?  That’s sleeping like a baby.

Even for American adults, discontinuous sleep can be enough.  People take advantage of this when they practice polyphasic sleep, getting all their sleep in the form of naps rather than in a long nightly chunk.  Research also shows that cosleeping mothers wake more frequently at night but feel more rested in the morning (more on that later).

What if a good night’s sleep didn’t mean a night that hardly seems to exist, but a full, cozy, contemplative time?  What would need to change for you to enjoy being up in the middle of the night?

Links:
-A. Roger Ekirch’s “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles” in The American Historical Review, April 2001. Or maybe that link doesn’t work anymore? But the article became a chapter in his book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, which is on google books here.
– Bruce Bower’s “Slumber’s Unexplored Landscape: People in traditional societies sleep in eye-opening ways” in Science News, September 25, 1999.
– Richard A. Friedman’s “Sleep Disorder? Wake Up and Smell the Savanna” in the New York Times, March 14, 2006.
-Steve Pavlina’s blog posts on his experience with polyphasic sleep
– Tim Zimmermann on long-distance solo boat racers’ sleep practices: Miles To Go Before I Sleep in Outside Magazine, April 2005.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ellen January 9, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Thanks for this! I’ll be passing it on.

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