Two Sleeps Used To Be The Norm, Here’s Why

In prior centuries, splitting sleep into two separate phases in a 24 hour period or "biphasic sleep" was often the norm.

By Mark McKee | Published


Most likely, you were taught along with the rest of us growing up that to be healthy, you needed to get eight hours of sleep a night, but is your sleeping habit wrong? BBC Future discussed the lost art of something called biphasic sleep, or the practice of splitting your sleep schedule into two separate segments of a 24-hour period. Of course, it may sound foreign to us because we are taught to sleep eight hours at night, work eight hours during the day, then spend our evenings watching Netflix, eating dinner, and spending time with our families, but the practice is used all over the world. 

Future told the story of a court case where two visitors came calling one evening after what they called first sleep, and they eventually kidnapped the child’s mother in the court proceedings. A historian by the name of Roger Ekirch was researching for a book on the history of nighttime when he stumbled upon this phenomenon, where he continually found records of families that would engage in biphasic sleeping. While it seems like something that would never work in today’s world, in the 17th century, the practice gave its users the ability to be more productive than ever.

The process of splitting the sleep schedule up into two segments would follow similar breakdowns across the classes, where people would go to sleep around 9 pm to 11 pm and sleep for a few hours. They would then wake for a couple of hours before going back to sleep until dawn, called morning sleep when they would wake up for good and go about their day. This practice was done so much that people would naturally wake up for the middle of the night block and then wake up naturally with the sunlight.

Pictured: The future of sleep

That midnight block was used for numerous endeavors, from work to religion to connecting with family or creating new members of the family. Poorer families would use their time to check on livestock or take care of some of their domestic responsibilities; more affluent families would use this extra time to talk or connect with others while others worked around them. This was also a great time to attempt to have babies; if these people had long, hard days, that first few hours of sleep would reinvigorate them before physical intimacy.

Of course, with the quiet hours of the night, this was also an excellent time for people to get closer to God. Waking up in the middle of the night when they weren’t tired, and it was too dark to do a lot of the day’s work left a lot of time to pray. During Roger Ekirch’s research, he found one father who called it a profitable hour after digesting their food and not having work to do; this is when God looked upon them. 

But could this work in your life today to improve your health? Of course, if you have to be at the office from 9-5, then you’re locked into that sleep schedule. But if you are looking for a new way to carve out some extra time, maybe sleeping earlier in the evening and creating a spare moment in the middle of the night could add to your productivity. When the world sleeps, you would be surprised how much you can do without distraction.