Segmented Sleep: Make the Most of the 2 A.M. Feed
New parents are often (always?) plagued by interrupted sleep. Babies get hungry in the middle of the night—it’s a fact of life. But did you know that sleeping the whole night through is a new practice? As little as 150 years ago, before the advent of electric light, it was common to go to bed shortly after the sun went down. Then people would get up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night before turning in until sunrise.
It’s called “segmented sleep”, and it may be the way our bodies and minds were intended to rest. We don’t break our sleep into segments anymore. Why? Because when electric light came into the picture, we started staying up later and later. That meant we had to squeeze our daily sleep into a shorter period of time. One experiment left a group of men in the dark for around half the 24-hour day. After a few days, they fell back into a segmented sleep pattern, with a couple of hours of wakefulness in the wee hours.
So what did people do in the middle of the night? Lots of things, it turns out. Historians have found plenty of references to people being quite active in the middle of the night. They’d read, catch up on correspondence, pray, make love, or even visit the neighbours. Some would discuss the dreams they’d just had, helping each other find meaning.
We model our daily life around an 8-hour straight-through sleep period. For most people, segmented sleep just isn’t a realistic possibility. But if you’re on parental leave, and you can nap with your baby, you could give it a try.
If you find yourself wide awake after getting up to feed your little one, at least you know you’re in good historical company. You can get some thinking done, or some reading, or even wax amorous with your bedmate, if they're willing. I wouldn’t go ringing the neighbour’s doorbell, though.