A Good Night's Sleeps

Thursday, March 21, 2013

My daughter is badly congested and having trouble sleeping: Time to experiment! No, not on her: on myself. This entails, in part, the fact that I'm composing this post about an hour before normal, with her sprawled across my lap. It also entails me going back to sleep, if possible, after I upload it into Blogger and hit Publish.

Some time ago, I ran across an article in The New York Times that challenged the (now) conventional wisdom that humans need eight hours of uninterrupted sleep in order to function best. The piece brought up scientific and historical evidence favoring two segments of sleep, interrupted by a wakeful period:

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 [investigated] 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. [minor format edits]
This I found especially interesting at the time, because I have been looking for ways to change aspects of my daily routine in order to increase the quantity and quality of time available for research and writing. My current routine -- to the extent that I can keep it -- has been to try to get six hours of downtime, preferably as continuously as possible.

My daughter's persistent ear infection had often scuttled such plans, and I realized that I had several times basically experimented with such a sleeping pattern out of necessity. Several times, finding myself having to hold the baby so she could sleep, I wrote blog posts on my laptop, and then resumed sleeping later in the morning. I was often surprised at how well-rested I usually felt the next day.

Further reflection also yielded another realization: This is the way I used to function by inclination back in our childless days. Mrs. Van Horn and I would settle on the couch most evenings to watch television. After an hour or so, I'd fall asleep for a couple of hours, wake up and blog or work for an hour or so, and then go back to sleep, rising early (for that time) at 5:00.

In my current circumstances, I still prefer the single, longer stretch of sleep, but this article and my own experience indicate that a split sleep schedule may be a viable alternative for me. As opportunites arise, I will be expermenting with it, and am open to moving to it as my normal routine if things continue to look promising.

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

Since I now (usually) have the privilege of sleeping as much as I want, I usually find that I tend to do the same thing--sleep about 6 hours, wake up, do some stuff, and then get tired after a couple of hours and want to go back to bed. I usually resist the impulse because I have a dreadful time falling asleep at night.

Gus Van Horn said...

Fortunately for me, I zonk out quickly and easily. (I also learned during my sleep-deprived days at OCS that I could cat-nap in almost any position that didn't involve standing.)

It is interesting that your first sleep is long. Mine is short and if I am able to indulge my natural inclination, my second is longer.

In any event, yesterday ended up not being the best test of this strategy as the baby never slept longer than thirty minutes or so at a stretch. The naps I got allowed me to get up and do things when she finally did stay asleep and I functioned okay during the day, but I'm not sure how a few days of THAT in a row would work out for me.