Staying Sane in This Dark Night of the American Soul

Are Old People (and Everyone Else) Sleeping All Wrong?


ITEM 1: Everyone knows that insomnia is a common condition of growing old; it just comes with age, like wrinkles.

ITEM 2: We also know that the proper and natural way to get a good night's sleep is to bed down in a dark, dedicated room sometime in the evening either alone or with a spouse, sleep for seven or eight hours straight and wake refreshed in the morning.

Well, not so fast. Item 1 is definitely wrong. Statistics for insomnia are about the same among all age groups. And there is growing evidence that Item 2 has been the “norm” for only the past 200 years or so, and much to our detriment according to a new book.

AtDaysCloseBack in 2012, I told you about the interesting thesis of British historian Roger Ekirch. Until the invention and widespread use of artificial light in the 19th century, he reported, people in Europe had generally slept in two shifts – first sleep and second sleep.

From Ekirch's book, At Day's Close – Night in Times Past,

”...fragments in several languages...give clues to the essential features of this puzzling pattern of repose.

“Both phases of sleep lasted roughly the same length of time, with individuals waking sometime after midnight before returning to rest...Men and women referred to both intervals as if the prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration...”

“After midnight, pre-industrial households usually began to stir. Many of those who left their beds merely needed to urinate...Some persons, however, after arising, took the opportunity to smoke tobacco, check the time, or tend a fire.”

More evidence for the second sleep idea has emerged since Ekirch's book was published in 2005.

When I first read about this phenomenon five or six years ago, it seemed to explain my difficulty with sleeping: regularly waking after three or four hours and unable to return to sleep for an hour or two or even three sometimes.

It's not a nightly occurrence but happens more often than not. Now and then I try to find ways to sleep through the night but mostly I just live with it. Now I may embrace it. Read on.

However sleeplessness manifests itself from individual to individual, a good night's sleep is widely difficult to achieve and the billions of dollars a year spent by millions of people on physicians, medications, nostrums, self-help books, products and clinics in an effort to get a full night of restful sleep don't help anyone much.

WildNightsNow, in a new book titled Wild Nights – How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World – Benjamin Reiss, while acknowledging that Ekirch's thesis that electric lights reordered our sense of time and, perhaps, evolutionary rhythms, another at least equal contributor to widespread disordered sleep is the industrial revolution.

Before then, for many centuries in many countries, sleep was a social event involving adults and children together and even visitors:

”For starters, the notion of sleeping in a private bedroom, out of view of strangers or even most other family members, turns out to have shallow roots,” writes Reiss...

“Historian Sasha Handley reveals that even the idea of a 'bedroom,' denoting a room primarily associated with sleep, is rather new.

“Throughout the eighteenth century in England, most homes had rooms with overlapping functions depending on the time of day; and well into the nineteenth century, it was common for travelers to share beds with strangers.”


Reiss writes that along with gas and then electric lighting, the arrival of the railroad with speeds no one in history had experienced before contributed to loss of sleep, he attributes it mostly to the migration of workers from farm to factory.

When employers needed to count on employees arriving on schedule to keep production humming, they even used wake-up bells to rouse the people in the factory towns:

”Time itself became a chief product of the industrial age,” Reiss continues, “and when clock time did not correspond to natural rhythms, artificial lighting could enforce it.

“Despite, or perhaps because of, the factory system's role in creating havoc with sleep schedules, the idea of a standard model for healthful sleep – eight unbroken hours – took hold.”

The change was helped along in no small manner by do-gooders who didn't like adults, children and strangers of both sexes mixing it up all together under one blanket.

Benjamin Reiss explains up front that his goal with his book was to unravel the reasons for our current sleep-obsessed society with ”a blend of literature, the social and medical history of sleep, cross-cultural analysis, and some brief forays into science...”

It is a fascinating read revealing that our current definition of “normal” sleep is far from being so, and our relentless pursuit of that norm may even be a, if not the, culprit in our widespread cultural insomnia.

The story is much more complex than I have space to explain, but below are a few more quotations that may help you, as I have, think about reordering your beliefs about sleep.

And who has more time than retired people who no longer need to waken to an alarm to try out different ways of finding satisfying sleep.

“...those who argue that there is no single way to sleep naturally or correctly give us license to be more forgiving of our own sleep patterns, to stop thinking that there is a 'right' way that we're failing to achieve.”
“'s arguable that when sleep began to be shut off from social life, walled away behind closed doors, it became less pleasurable, more pressurized, more fragile, and more subject to the vagaries of individual psychology.”
“Other scientific research gives the lie to the notion that humans are wired to sleep the same way every night...

And one more thing:

“...ducks sleep in a row, with the ones on the edges keeping an outer eye open.”

Did you know that? I didn't know that.



> "pre-industrial households...... check the time, or tend a fire.”

How do you suppose they checked the time... and why?

Moonlight or the lack of it is a pretty good indicator, shadow clocks (the night version of sundials) and primitive hour glasses have been around since B.C.

I remember reading about this theory a few years back; my sleep seems to have settled into this pattern since I've retired. I live in an area with very little artificial nightlight, i.e. streetlights, etc.

I am no longer of the age when I would be tempted to wander around or make whoopee at that hour, now it's just getting up and reading.

Amen. In general, the frantic search for the norm is futile and often destructive. Even if there were a 'normal' way to sleep--eg when we were more primitive--it doesn't necessarily apply now. We live in this society.

I have a friend who, when she was in college, had insomnia and it worried her because she was afraid it would undermine her health. She tried all he recommended tips on sleeping to no avail.

in desperation she went to her doctor and asked for help. His advice was to quit worrying about it because when the body needed sleep it would make you sleep.

For several years I tried the second sleep. The advice was that if you can't fall back to sleep after 20 minutes, get up and do something else. I did that and got my needed sleep in two segments. During the second sleep I usually had vivid dreams. After waking the second time I felt refreshed.

Love the annotation about the ducks. I wonder if that's true for other critters. My second sleep comes about 10 minutes after the first 7-8 hours if I don't get right up. Especially if I've been really busy the day before. Actually I haven't had any sleep problems ever except during times of extreme stress or because of some kinds of medication. My nearest in age sister wakes up several times a night. Different for everyone I think.

I used to routinely get my 7-8 hours in one uninterrupted period. But in recent years I've had to make "pit stops" once or twice a night. It really bothered me at first, but now it's so automatic that I hardly remember it in the morning. Insomnia has never been a problem, fortunately, because I'd probably have a really tough time dealing with it.

Timely, as always, thank you. I sleep less and less well and have been fighting it, and worrying about additional health risks, etc. We are so conditioned that something is wrong that I am resentful of the thought of having to get up in the middle of the night. Much of my problem is lack of exercise due to current health adjustments. In the meantime, I need to relax and enjoy a few extra hours of reading: my favorite occupation! It will take some time to embrace however, I'm sure.

I take a nap every day, it's one of the joys of being retired. Around here we call it happy hour. I sleep well, but occasionally succumb to insomnia, but it's not big deal. I read until I'm finally tired or get up and have a snack. Eventually I sleep.
I remember as a child sharing a bed with at least one sister and sometimes 2, never thought anything of it, that's how everyone did it. Now every child has to have their own bedroom, not just bed.

I learned about this first and second sleep recently myself. The knowledge helped ease my concern about my occasional insomnia. I think we all need to go with the flow a bit more and worry about the small stuff less. I think many of these so called health issues are made up to sell us another product we don't need. Love the blog.

Interesting post. When still employed, I used to get up a couple of hours after going to sleep (sleep #1, around 11:30p), go downstairs, wake up the computer and work for an hour or two. Then I'd give the cats a snack and go back to bed until the alarm went off about 5:30a (sleep #2). I probably wasn't getting enough zzzz's, but I got a lot done in the middle of the night. Quiet, no one around, no TV, no UPS. My husband has pretty much always slept soundly from about 11:30p-8:00a.

Now, I usually read until around 1:00a, get up to feed our 3 cats about 3:30a, then sleep through until about 8:30a--sometimes 9:00+. If I can't get back to sleep soon after feeding the cats, I may be sleepy in the late afternoon, but that's not a problem now that I'm retired.

I sometimes think about retired folks who stick with their old routines rather than experiencing all the good things available with freedom from employment rules. Trying to force eight solid hours of sleep is high on the list. I got up at 10 a.m. today. Went to bed at 10 p.m. Got up about 3 a.m. and worked at my puter for several hours. Feeling great today about letting my body take advantage of retiree freedom last night.

About twenty years ago I meat an a woman who had worked as an accountant for most of her adult life. She commuted about an hour to work Monday - Friday, and told me that she would go to bed soon after getting home and eating, then wake somewhere around around midnight, get up and do some things around the house for a couple of hours then go back to bed until time to get up and do everything all over again. This was the first time I had heard about this "second sleep" phenomenon. My husband worked nights for more than a decade, and one of my sons has worked nights for almost twice that long. There are so many people with multiple jobs and differing shifts these days, that it might be difficult to determine what a "normal" sleep pattern looks like for many of us.

More recently I do wake up about 2 or 3 am and sometimes get up and read something that is not too interesting and return to bed when I get sleepy. Supposedly looking at bright lights like TV, phone, or computer wake the brain up more. I have been falling asleep in front of the TV at 9:30 pm. Usually when I've had a busy day plus my 30 minute walk I sleep 7 or 8 hours uninterrupted except for bladder breaks.

As far as sleeping with children, if you've ever been a parent you remember those nights you took in a child who came into your room to get some comfort. Restless little bodies always twist and turn, ending up kicking you in the back, or elbowing you in the face. Sometimes one had a leaky diaper, or during potty training, an accident to further make staying in the same bed a nightmare (no pun intended).

My children always let their small kidlets sleep with them for years - it was the vogue and may still be for all I know. My son used to say their birth control was Maddy. When I was growing up one or another of my sisters and I shared a bed and a bedroom until I went away to college. How we 4 girls grew up in a small 1 bathroom house plus Mom and Dad I can't imagine.

My Mother had insomnia as long as I could remember and I'm sure way before I came along. She would go to bed around 10 or 11 and wake up 2-3 hours later. She would get up and write letters. She loved that time because it was too hectic during the day to do this and she enjoyed the quiet time,

Actually we humans do the equivalent of the end ducks when we sleep in unfamiliar places. MRIs show part of the brain that records input from an eye stays awake the first couple nights in a new bed location, so we quite literally do sleep with one eye open, explaining the feeling of lack of rest common to nights in a hotel.

After reading this, I think I'll give myself permission to doze off on the couch in the evenings —something I love to do, but resist!

I am sharing this post on my blog. Okay, I cannot for some reason. So, I will take out the website since that seems to be the problem.

I will post this on Sunday.

Thank you, dear Ronni, for your umpteenth great and timely post. I second Darlene's comment ... so much better to get up and do something instead of letting the jungle in one's brain take over during middle-of-the-night wakeups.
And I heartily second all the comments related to ads and "advice" and the real purpose behind them, like that of the fearmongerers ...
Power naps ... great invention.

I just retired 4 weeks ago and I sleep a lot better now. The alarm is turned off and that relieves me of any pressure to get a good nights sleep. I still get up between 6 and 7 but I'm not rushed to get going. That and I make sure I get in some kind of physical activity outside, even if just for a short walk.

Thanks for the article. I have been reading about the "second sleep" for several years now. Apparently, people would often visit neighbors in the middle of the night as part of it. I hadn't thought of the change occurring because of the Industrial Revolution's demands that people worked for 10 hours straight during the day. Now that I'm retired, I can sleep more according to my nature. But somehow I still feel guilty when II wake up early, do a little work around the house and then go back to sleep.

First came across this "phenomena" when reading the Diary of Samuel Pepys. He wrote about it as common practice, which I found hard to believe. Yet, this was an actual diary written by an actual person! No alternative facts were there. Liberating, isn't it?

Mary Ann Jones...
Most of the information about first and second sleep in Ekirch's 2005 book came from personal diaries and journals and in fact, he mentions Pepys' diary.

Interesting, never sleeping problems, always slept. But since arriving at 80 it is different.
I prop up in bed around 6:30, read, meditate, pray Usually fall asleep about 9 and wake up about midnight. Get up straighten this cottage and since I no longer eat much will drink an Ensure and then back to bed, fall asleep until 5:00 and then up....

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