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People Are Sleeping Like It's 1800: Is Segmented Sleep OK?

Jennifer Nelson

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A recent New York Times article shared that many of us are sleeping like it's the 1800s again. What is segmented sleep and is it disruptive to your circadian rhythm?


A few years into midlife, my partner and I found ourselves awake at 3 a.m. — almost nightly. Sensing the other person was awake also, one of us would inevitably whisper into the dark, “are you awake, too?" and so began our middle-of-the-night middle-age awakenings. If we fell asleep again after an hour or two, we called it “second sleep."


It worried us because waking up in the middle of the night was considered a sleep failure. No one is supposed to be awake in the wee hours of the morning, so the theory goes — unless, of course, you're a shift worker or run a bakery.


Historically, middle-of-the-night awakenings were standard in some cultures as far back as ancient civilization and continued throughout the 19th century.


Back in the 1800s, people went to sleep when the sun went down and often woke in the middle of the night to read, socialize, eat, reflect, pray or make love — and then head back to bed for their second sleep.


This type of segmented sleep faded with the advent of artificial lighting and the Industrial Revolution that put the focus on productivity and profit.


Intermittent Sleeping

Not sleeping through the night? According to Rubin Naiman, PhD, FAASM, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, it's perfectly normal for a middle-aged couple to have these early awakenings and make the best of intermittent sleeping as we were doing. With that in mind, second sleep became less of an inconvenience and irritation. Instead of being anxious about a lack of sleep, it was simply a temporary phase allowing us to have long middle-of-the-night discussions, watch TV, read or “get busy."


And we're not alone. In fact, 35% of people wake up during the night at least three times per week, according to the Sleep Foundation. Not to mention, newer pandemic schedules have spurred this less well-known 1800s style of sleeping.


Is Segmented Sleep OK?

You may wonder if this is a healthy pattern of sleeping and why it's not common today.


Sleep hygiene education has taught us that going to bed and getting up at the same hour each day, watching our pre-bed food intake and alcohol and caffeine consumption are part and parcel of a solid sleep plan, and we know they have merit.


But every person is different because this routine impacts your circadian rhythm helping you wake up with more energy and feeling great. But, if you find yourself not sleeping through the night, waking too early or having periods of wakefulness followed by periods of second sleep, you may do just fine with segmented sleep.


Dr. Peter G. Polos, MD, PhD, FCCP, FAASM — Sleep Medicine Specialist and Sleep Number Sleep Expert cautions making this a regular routine though. "You're going to be waking up at some point in the middle of your slow wave or REM sleep, which is extremely disruptive. If you wake up and expose yourself to light doing an activity, you've now awakened your brain. Your heart rate goes up, your respiratory rates go up. You've got some adrenaline release too because your body is thinking it's up for the day and then three hours later you say, okay, now we're going back to bed. I don't recommend this as your go-to sleep routine," said Dr. Polos.


Researchers say we don't have hard data on this 19th century sleep pattern, but it could make some feel tired during the day, and it may require some to go to bed earlier. For others, whether due to middle-age sleep changes, hormones, menopause and other medical conditions, segmented sleep could be the answer to at least alleviating the anxiety and stress surrounding middle-of-the-night wakefulness.


Understand Your Own Sleep Pattern

As for my partner and me, once we gave up trying desperately to stick to a block sleep schedule and gave in to the changing mid-life pattern, we made peace with our segmented sleep schedule. What's more, it wasn't permanent and in time we found middle-of-the-night awakenings became less and less frequent.


To understand more about your own sleep insights, learn more about a Sleep Number 360® smart bed.


Like diet and exercise, quality sleep has a profound impact on your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. Because no two people sleep the same, Sleep Number 360® smart beds, with SleepIQ® technology, sense your movements and automatically adjust firmness, comfort and support to keep you both sleeping comfortably and provide proven quality sleep. Find your Sleep Number® setting for your best possible night's sleep, and if you own a Sleep Number® bed, log in to your InnerCircle℠ Rewards account to see your exclusive offers, refer friends and more.



Jennifer Nelson is a Florida-based health writer who writes about all things sleep hygiene. She writes for The National Sleep Foundation, Phillips, Tom's Guide, Southern Living, Health, AARP, and others.

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