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Did you know that people used to sleep twice per night? Maybe we should return to this regime?

Posted July 22, 2019

You have to sleep at least 8 hours per night. Otherwise you’re not going to be able to function and be productive. Eventually insufficient sleep is going to catch up to you and you will feel the consequences. Our work pushes us out of our proper sleeping cycle. But did you know that long time ago people used to sleep two times per night? Maybe we should return to such regime?

Scientists believe that humans evolved to have two-sleep nights in order to take care of fire and children. Image credit: A. Rötting via Wikimedia

In many cultures sleeping twice per day is a normal practice. One sleep is the proper night rest and another one is a midday siesta or a naptime. Napping is a good idea if you need to catch up to sleep, but we are not talking about that right now.

People actually used to sleep twice per night. Not per day – per night. History professor Roger Ekirch has talked about that, revealing that people used to go to sleep not because of a particular schedule, but because they didn’t have anything to do. Sun would go down and people would find themselves bored. Remember – no electricity, no proper light, no proper nightlife. So you just go to sleep an hour or two after the sunset.

Then after 3-4 hours people would wake up. They would talk, have sex, take care of the smallest babies (breastfeeding, changing – that sort of thing) or just lay in the bed and think about something. Some would actually start working. One very important task was to attend the fire, to make sure that it doesn’t go out completely. This was not just because it was cold, but also because starting fire was not that easy. In fact, scientists believe that such a peculiar sleep schedule evolved due to the need to take care of the fire. If you sleep solid 8 or 9 hours, you will wake up cold, which is a very big problem, because wood stoves take time to heat up and you have to make sure your family is nice and warm.

After a couple of hours people would go back to sleep and raise only after the dawn. Then they would start working immediately, only stopping for some breakfast. Yes – breakfast was not the first thing they did in the morning – it was sort of a break to eat something fast. And such sleeping regime survived up until the 17th century.

At first noble people from Northern Europe started sleeping a bit like we do – for solid hours without interruption. Later this practice trickled down to the entire continent and this is where we are now. Industrial revolution helped establishing this practice for once and for all, because of shift work. But maybe we should go back to two sleeps per night?

Scientists say that two sleeps per night would help us combat insomnia, would improve our memory, mood and productivity. Double sleep is more compatible with our natural circadian rhythms. However, our fast-paced life is not really sleep-friendly, so as long as you stick to 8 hours of sleep per night, you should be fine.

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