Spontaneous emergence of an ancient sleep pattern!

I am reassured. My usual sleep pattern is to go to bed around 11 or 12, and then I wake up around 5 and rather sluggishly amble towards alertness. But lately, after having that pattern disrupted by travel, I’ve been going to bed earlier, then waking up around 3am and either struggling to get back to sleep or getting up and reading, and then getting a few more hours of sleep, waking up around 7.

I was getting a little worried that this was a sign of incipient insomnia, but I seem to be getting enough sleep…and then I read about human sleep patterns in the absence of artificial light. Well, cool. It turns out that if you don’t keep yourself awake late into the dark hours you naturally fall into a pattern of waking for a while in the early hours of the morning.

That’s actually encouraging. I’ve been lying abed, annoyed at waking and trying to sleep harder, as silly as that sounds, but now I’m going to take advantage of those 2:30am conscious periods to get up and get something done.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    If we let you loose on the tundra along with the reindeer in winter, you would eventually decouple from the 24-hour cycle. Feeding/sleeping cycles do not have to conform to the 24-hour pattern if it is dark all the time (based on reindeer research).

  2. frog says

    That started happening to me a year or two ago. It’s definitely easier to get back to sleep if I get up and do something for an hour or so. For me this usually involves sitting on the toilet with a book, but sometimes I sketch or brush the cat or put away laundry. Just something that says, “No, I am not interested in going to sleep.” Then when I lie down again, I’m usually out in fifteen minutes flat.

  3. congenital cynic says

    There was a documentary on CBC radio a few years ago that discussed this. They sent one of their own to a cabin in the woods in northern Ontario and compelled him to go to bed when it was dark. He experienced this exact phenomena. And there are apparently lots of references to the waking in the wee hours in older books (both novels and non-fiction).

  4. The Mellow Monkey: Singular They says

    Interesting. I’ve been thinking that those long winter nights when I wake up at around 3am would be better spent getting up and puttering around instead of laying in bed, angry that I’m not asleep. I’ll use this as my excuse to get up and write for an hour or so instead. It looks like it’s common advice for insomnia as well.

  5. zazen says

    Found this piece so interesting that I am replying for first time ever. This has been my sleep pattern for my entire adult life and I thought something was wrong with me. I spent years using prescription meds, alcohol, marijuana, you name it, so that I might sleep through the entire night. Finally, my therapist told me to “just accept it” and “lean into it”. He said I should “get up and do something productive” when I can’t sleep. This wasn’t always so easy. Years ago, when my kids were school age, the second sleep didn’t always happen. I had to get them off to school and then head to work myself. So, I was a zombie many days. Now that kids are gone (although two of them recently came back), I just use these hours in the middle of the night to catch up on my favorite blogs, including this one. Now, my kids tell me they are having these same sleep issues. I can’t wait to post this link to the facebook pages. Thanks, PZ.

  6. twas brillig (stevem) says

    warning: TMI ahead:
    I find that recently as I have aged into >50yo, I require waking in the wee hours to eliminate a bit of wee. I’ve read that with age, one tends to lose the protein/hormone that slows the kidney’s function so that it produces less ‘liquid’ for the sleep period. Being a protein, it can’t be supplemented with a simple pill, oral consumption of such a protein will break it up into its individual aminoes. This story leads me thus, to the ‘sleep-after’ of visiting the porcelain altar. That sleep-after-wee is when my brain often treats me to the most cinematic dreams with complete storylines and everything.
    -one aid to sleep, I read recently, is to leave at least one foot out from under your bed covers. This will act to cool the body, which is strongly associated with the state of sleep. (the body is only a few degrees cooler when sleeping than awake, so a single cooling foot is sufficient).
    -melatonin I don’t understand; so not going there.
    -I hesitate “doing something” when waking so early, fear action will keep me awake, and being sloppy in the work. That’s just me, if it works for you: congrats.

  7. Callinectes says

    I heard about this. You occasionally find references to it in old literature- people would eat, play, have sex, visit their neighbours, quickly go home in embarrassment, that sort of thing. It was in the nineteenth century that people “decided” that it was bad and began training their children to stay asleep.

  8. Doug Hudson says

    Interesting, I’ve recently adopted this sleep pattern purely by chance. For years I’d been taking benadryl for allergies, and basically inadvertantly drugging myself to sleep. I’ve been able to cut back (thanks allergy shots), but I discovered I was getting really sleepy around 5, 5:30. Eventually I just gave in and went to bed then. To my surprise, after a few days my sleep pattern fell into two parts, very similar to what the article describes.

    The results were amazing. I have so much more energy during the day, and I’m rarely sleepy.

    Granted, it’s a difficult pattern to follow, but it’s nice to know that it isn’t totally weird.

  9. frog says

    twas brillig @ 6:
    If you didn’t get the middle-of-the-night bathroom thing until you were older than 50, you’re waaaaay ahead of the game. This is pretty much SOP for everyone I know, ranging from mid-30s up.

    I hear you about the fear of “doing something” that will keep you awake. That’s why I read (tires my eyes out), but I mostly reread books so I don’t get caught in “what happens next?” and can put the book down when I’m ready.

    Simple mindless easy physical tasks (such as putting away laundry) help too. Not enough brain-engagement to kickstart the think cycles, not enough physical activity to energize the body, but my brain seems to say, “You have accomplished an important task and now are allowed to relax.”

  10. machintelligence says

    twas brilllig (stevem) @6
    Amen, (if you will pardon the expression), from another old fart.

  11. Terska says

    Same here. I go watch TV or read on the couch. I try not to eat. I often have two wakeful periods. The TV is a bad idea cause of the light but my eyes suck at reading and that requires a lot of light too.

  12. ragdish says

    You may be jet lagged from your overseas travel. Have you tried bright light therapy in the evening? This could ameliorate your advanced sleep phase.

  13. madtom1999 says

    The trick is realising it is natural and not worrying about it.
    The best solution I’ve found is to watch an hour of rubbish tv and then find something I want to watch – straight out!

  14. DonDueed says

    Cue the evo-psych explanations! (AKA just so stories.)

    Okay, okay, I got one. In ancient times, the wee hours were when dangerous predators were most active, so our ancestors were the ones who were wakeful then.

    What do I win?

  15. says

    I read about this in new scientist a few months ago*. Apparently we evolved to take advantage of moonlight (I guess without artificial lighting, it would be a bit more impressive) to have a few waking hours in the middle of the night. So I think it’s more that because we can usefully stay up later now, we don’t bother.

    *it was only really mentioned in passing, I don’t really consider this knowledge, any more than if I’d heard about it on QI.

  16. says

    birgerjohanssen @1:

    If we let you loose on the tundra along with the reindeer in winter, you would eventually decouple from the 24-hour cycle

    Could you elaborate more on what this means?

  17. says

    Lynna @7:

    What about naps after lunch? That seems to be a “natural” sleep rhythm that humans try to ignore.

    I remember hating naps (after anything) as a child. As an adult, I *love* them. Especially after lunch. Give me a nice hour, hour and a half, and I feel so refreshed (not that I get the chance when I’m employed).

    frog @10:

    If you didn’t get the middle-of-the-night bathroom thing until you were older than 50, you’re waaaaay ahead of the game. This is pretty much SOP for everyone I know, ranging from mid-30s up.

    Back when I worked out regularly and consumed a lot of protein (I was trying to pack on mass and was consuming 3-4,000 calories a day and nearly 200 grams of protein a day), I woke up multiple times in the night to pee. It was so annoying and I didn’t know why it was happening for many years.

  18. gerryl says

    When I was having sleep problems a few years back I started reading up on healthy sleep. That’s when I learned about this 1st sleep/2nd sleep pattern from the days before artificial light. Makes a lot of sense.

    I have had chances to spend nights on the grounds of chimpanzee sanctuaries. They all go to bed as it gets dark. But then, in the middle of the night someone will invariably wake up and pretty soon the arguments start — and often they would get loud enough to wake me up, too. So apparently our cousins follow the same pattern.

  19. carlie says

    I am an enormous fan of the 15-20 minute nap during the day. No longer, or grogginess happens. But when I’m getting really cranky, and it’s possible to do so, even just doing the “lean back in the chair and close eyes” thing works wonders.

  20. lakitha tolbert says

    So apparently I was wrong in simply considering myself a “night owl”. Now this is my usual pattern of sleep now that I’ve gotten older and I’ve spoken to a couple of thers at my job who have found themselves following this same pattern. I normally get really sleepy between the hours of 8 and 10 PM, sleep until about 2 or 3 AM, putter around for a bit and then sleep until 8 AM, when I have to get up for work.

    Frof@10: This is an excellent suggestion. Rereading an old favorite rather than something new that would keep me a little too mentally alert to go back to sleep. I’m going to try that tonight.

  21. anxionnat says

    Back in the Middle Ages, this (waking up in the middle of the night) was referred to as the “second rising”. See A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester. I read this book several years ago and realized that, because I had some medication that required I take it between midnight and 2 a.m., I’d begun this sleeping habit, and that it was a normal one, not weird. I still take that med, and wake about 2 a.m. naturally–much better than setting the alarm and stumbling around sleepily looking for my med.