Sleep however you feel like

A while back, there was an idea that swept through social media that there is this thing called biphasic sleep. People naturally tend to wake up in the middle of the night, that historically there was a thing called “first sleep”, and then people would wake up around 2am and putter about and use their bedpans or pick up a quill pen and write a sonnet or whatever, and then go back to bed for “second sleep” before rising at cock-crow. I found this reassuring, because as I got older I was shifting from continuous night-time sleep to an interrupted sleep that fit that pattern. It’s OK! It’s not just age and stress, this is how humans are supposed to sleep, I could tell myself.

Hold it right there, not so fast: it’s probably not true. There isn’t one way you’re supposed to sleep.

But humans have never had a universal method of slumber. A 2015 study of hunter-gatherer societies in Tanzania, Namibia, and Bolivia found that most foragers enjoyed one long sleep. Two years later, another study found that a rural society in Madagascar practiced segmented sleep. Two years after that, a study found that the indigenous residents of Tanna, in the South Pacific, largely had one uninterrupted sleep.

Even within preindustrial Europe, sleep contained multitudes. Reviewing the diaries of European writers such as Samuel Pepys and James Boswell, Ekirch found several allusions to unified sleep. Summarizing this complicated literature, he told me that “patterns of sleep in non-Western cultures appear to have been much more diverse” than those in Europe, but that they were truly diverse everywhere.

There is no evidence that sleep was universally segmented, and there is also little evidence that segmented sleep is better. A 2021 meta-analysis of studies on biphasic sleep schedules found that segmented-sleeping subjects actually reported “lower sleep quality … and spent more time in lighter stages of sleep.” One reasonable takeaway is that biphasic sleep is like anarchical foraging: Both might have well served some ancient populations some of the time, but neither of them offers a clear solution to modern problems.

I find that even more reassuring. Don’t hold people to the one true way they’re supposed to do something, everyone is different, different cultures lead to different behaviors, and there’s nothing wrong with being a bi or a mono-sleeper. Individuals can even change! The only norm is that we have diverse patterns of activity.

Although “like a baby” is a pretty good ideal.


  1. mmfwmc says

    I know this isn’t a sports blog, and you couldn’t care less about a particular high-contact sport in the southern hemisphere, but the “like a baby” thing always reminds me that after one particularly wrenching loss a New Zealand rugby league coach was asked if he slept ok afterwards. He said “I slept like a baby. I woke up crying every two hours.”

  2. hillaryrettig1 says

    @2 – LOL

    Maybe this is a good time to discuss insomnia. I’ve battled it for years, and it has gotten worse over time. I’ve tried everything, including all the pills and listening to the somnolent voices of the BBC Shipping Report.

    Right now I’m taking Wyld Elderberry CBD gummies and they seem to work well. I take them 2 hours bf going to bed, and then right at bedtime take some melatonin. On a good night, the melatonin puts me to sleep and the CBD (I think) keeps me asleep.

    My partner has also found the Wylde good for his headaches.

    Also, we just switched to a memory foam mattress and it’s much more comfortable. I don’t have restless leg, but I am a restless sleeper, and also have trouble keeping a comfortable body temp.

    Mg also helps if you’re a restless sleeper.

  3. cartomancer says

    Given everything that is happening in the world, the only truly appriopriate sleep pattern for the modern world is “not at all”.

  4. stroppy says

    FWIW, my sleep is segmented too. Question is, do you wake up refreshed? I don’t. Apparently it’s one of the more common sleep problems when you get older. When you go back to sleep after the interruption, your brain waves don’t fall into a normal rhythm. Supposedly they’ve had some success improving the quality of sleep by inducing a normal pattern using pink noise timed to your wave train.

    Meanwhile, I’m stuck compensating with coffee while trying not to over do it. Pro tip, getting frustrated and angry only makes it worse.

  5. stroppy says

    I periodically use gummies, but not every night. It helps a little, but the trade off is being more easily distracted and more lapses in memory.

  6. R. L. Foster says

    I have two kinds of sleep — daytime and nighttime. I’ve been a late afternoon napper since I was in my 20s, a habit I picked up in the Navy. Sometimes I’d be awake for 24 hours at a stretch — my regular duties and then watch and then my regular duties again. I learned to grab as much sleep as I could during the day. I’d often forego lunch to grab 30 minutes of sleep. Now that I’m technically old my nighttime sleep is often interrupted with old man issues. (I won’t go into the details, but I’m sure some of you can relate. If not, you younger guys out there, enjoy the moment.) Then, once I’m awake, it can take me an hour to fall back to sleep. Then I’m out. But that’s when the wildest dreams happen. Those last two-three hours of early morning sleep are often a riot of surreal action. The best thing about that is I can sometimes recall those dreams. Vivid, strange worlds filled with well drawn people and involved plots. Then it’s like, wow, how did my mind conjure up that action? If I’ve had a series of good dreams I’m refreshed and ready for the day. I’m convinced that sleep is about the mind, not so much the body.

  7. hillaryrettig1 says

    @8 RL – yes, I’ve had some incredible dreams filled with imagery and plot. The creative brain is amazing.

  8. PaulBC says

    Can I stipulate “as long as it doesn’t involve any product sold by Mike Lindell’s company”? OK, I’ll mind my own business, but I don’t want to hear about it.

    I used to sleep through the night most of the time. Lately, I’ve had shoulder pain that wakes me up every couple of hours. (Yes, I’ve seen a doctor.) I’ve always found afternoon naps useful if I can fit them it, though they tend to me more half-sleep and sometimes problem-solving sessions.

  9. robro says

    Having raised one baby, the idea of “slept like a baby” is amusing. Why does the baby always get sick at 2:00 am? More than once I was washing the bedding at 3:00 am. And I wasn’t the nursing mother whose sleep was interrupted several times a night for a couple of years.

    My own sleep pattern, when not interrupted by a barfing baby, is to sleep 5 to 7 hours at night, and then get an afternoon nap of 15-30 minutes. If I’m particularly tired, I might have a mid-morning nap…my bed is right behind me, so inviting. However, naps are difficult to pull off working in an office. The current “work from home” style makes life easier.

    Years ago when we were worried about the teenager (that baby) being up all night, I read that in some hunter-gather societies the teenagers typically keep watch at night, then the camp fire, and scare of wild animals. I have no idea if there’s any validity to that assertion but it corresponded to what we were going through.

  10. F.O. says

    At least according to Graeber’s The Dawn of Everything, not all foragers were anarchistic and not all anarchistic were foragers.
    Indeed, humans are always “a lot more complicated than that”.

  11. says

    subjects actually reported “lower sleep quality … and spent more time in lighter stages of sleep.”

    How the heck would you keep track of “lighter stages of sleep” when you’re sleeping?

  12. PaulBC says

    rsmith@14 I agree that self-reported stages of sleep are questionable, but I read this as what external monitors showed about their sleep.

  13. DLC says

    I have not been able to sleep more than 3-4 hours at a stretch in the last 5 years. I get a nap in the afternoon and a nap in the hours between 1 am and 6 am.

  14. llyris says

    I wonder with these theories how much attention has been given to the idea that not everyone is an adult male.
    It seems I know a lot of women who spent quite some time waking at 4am every night. And babies. Especially my youngest, woke for a dance party around 4am every night, for several weeks before he was born.
    So all these people theorising about how we ‘should’ be sleeping, that’s such a privileged position. What mother had that choice? One gets used to following the baby’s bizarre and constantly changing timetable.