Sleep is overrated, Part I

One of the common complaints of new parents is the lack of sleep that comes with a new baby. Nights of broken sleep are perceived as unnatural and uncomfortable. I can’t really contribute much to this debate – I consider myself lucky as my babies were and are relatively good sleepers. This does, of course, not mean they sleep through the night. Young babies have to wake up during the night for feeds. Semi-consciously breastfeeding a baby that sleeps next to mum is not that difficult, and the hormones that are released during breastfeeding helps mum to drift off to sleep again quickly.

Mothers and sleepI actually enjoy the peaceful minutes of being half awake during the night, the darkness and quiet to think a few thoughts. Getting enough sleep does not necessitate sleeping for eight hours straight. This is merely a cultural expectation. In fact, it can be argued that even sleep is a cultural practice with biological basis, which results in cultural specific patterns.

Craig Koslofsky and Russell Foster argued that for much of human history the night was divided in a first sleep and second sleep. The first sleep began about two hours after darkness fell and lasted for four hours. A period of wakefulness of one or two hours followed before the second sleep started. The period in between sleeps could be used for praying, sex, quiet activities, reading, thinking, etc. Numerous diaries, court records, medical books and literature refer to segmented sleeping patterns, which were the norm before the 17th century AD.

Another component of sleep patterns are temperature and climate. Heat and humidity causes people to rest and sleep at the hottest time of the day in warm climates, whereas in the northerly temperate zone, activities have to be block-scheduled at the middle of the day for warmth and light.

Sleeping patterns also depend on the circadian rhythm of individuals. Most life forms have mechanisms in place that structure activities around the 24 hour day. The biological clock of each individual interacts with the environment (especially seasonality and light conditions) and turns them into early birds, night owls or just average people. Studies have shown that constantly working against the biological clock is harmful to one’s health.

At least a part of the circadian rhythm seems to be related to individual’s age. Babies and toddlers tend to be early birds, but gradually morph into night owls as they become teenagers. Teenagers typically do not like to get out of bed early and stay up late at night.

What might have been an evolutionary advantage when young men went out hunting in the evening twilight, has turned into a disadvantage in our modern, over-structured and institutionalized world. Education experts keep suggesting that a later start to school would bring benefits for learning – a suggestion that so far has been overheard.

So, fellow parents, if you are still disturbed by your children waking you up at night, just remember that it is the 8-hour-straight sleep expectation that is the exception rather than the norm. And hope for the teenage years.

Coming soon: Sleep is overrated, Part II. Sleeping positions and company.

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About Katharina

Katharina is a prehistoric archaeologist working at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her main research interests include the archaeology of the human body, gender, identity and personhood as expressed through funerary practices and art. She specialises in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Europe. As a mother of two young boys, she gathered some practical experience in addition to her theoretical interest in motherhood.
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