Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Strength and Spirituality of Segmented Sleep

Our God is a wonderfully diverse Creator. If each snowflake looks different under the microscope, then one would expect each human being to have unique characteristics as well. It's one of the reasons one must always be careful with generalizations of human character or actions. Each of us is different and unique, a masterpiece of God's creation.

Yet, there are some common characteristics of all humans. We all breath, we all eat, we all sleep. Much of life's journey is walking a path of learning how to relax, eat well, and sleep well. Unfortunately, modern science seems to have ignored ancient data that indicates the best way to sleep at night is in segments, a process called segmented sleep.

Segmented sleep, described more fully, is a pattern of sleeping where two or more periods of sleep are punctuated by periods of wakefulness. Historian Roger Ekirch has written a fascinating book entitled At Days Close: Night in Times Past. Dr. Ekirch's seminal research into the matter shows how people for millennia slept in segmented patterns. Most humans went to bed a couple of hours after dusk (8:00 p.m.), slept for four hours (till midnight), then awoke for two to three hours where some of their most productive mental work took place. It was during this waking segment of the night that people would  pray, interpret dreams, meditate, and plan for the future. Then, people would go back to sleep around 2:00 or 3:00 am and sleep till sunrise.

In ancient literature the first period of sleeping before midnight was called "the first sleep" and the second period of sleeping after midnight was called "the second sleep."  This pattern of segmented sleep was universal. Dr. Ekirch writes:
"It's not just the number of references to segmented sleep (that is astonishing) - it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge."
There seems to be biblical evidence of segmented sleep:
"At midnight I arise to give you thanks for your righteous laws" (Psalm 119:62)
"About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them" (Acts 16:25).
"But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill" (Judges 16:3).
"At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet!" (Ruth 3:8) 
"Stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning" (Mark 13:35).
Psychologist Greg Jacobs says that waking up during the night is part of "normal human physiology." The website Slumber Wise says "the ideal time for study and contemplation" for the people of the past was between first sleep and second sleep. Chaucer tells of a character in the Canterbury Tales that goes to bed following her “firste sleep.” Interestingly, Slumber Wise also records that a doctor of the 1500's once explained why working class people conceived more children saying, "Working people typically have sex after their first sleep."

The modern idea that good sleep is always eight or more hours of uninterrupted sleep is a recent belief. Good sleep, according to Dr. Jacobs, is segmented sleep. The brain exhibits high levels of the pituitary hormone called prolactin during periods of nighttime wakefulness. The lessening of anxiety, the feelings of peace, and the relaxed state of one's mind tend to make the waking time between sleeps the most creative time for many people.

Those of us accustomed to electrical light often wake up at night and find ourselves anxious, believing something is wrong with us because we can't sleep.  As a result, we do not get the benefit of segmented sleep because nobody told sleeping in segments is healthy. In fact, we've been told all our lives that it is not healthy to sleep in segments.

Not so. It seems that waking up and spending an hour or two in mental exercise before going back to sleep might be the healthiest way to sleep. Of course, this pattern of sleeping would require an earlier bedtime than what most Americans currently have.

If you can get to bed at an early hour (the evening news), and if you awake up after about four hours of sleep, don't get anxious. Science (and Scripture?) seem to indicate that the "between the sleeps time"  is a very important part of life. Use that time to think, pray and even meditate. Feel free to get up and move around and do something productive, or if it is more suitable, lay in bed and engage your mind and soul in thought and prayer.  There are numerous prayer journals from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries that show God's people offered special prayers during the hours between sleeps.

I have a friend who practices segmented sleep. He tells me often that some of his most productive times are between sleeps during the night. Often he will Skype with friends from around the world during those one or two waking hours. Segmented sleep may not be for everyone, but if you are curious about it, I would highly recommend you read At Days Close: Night in Times Past.


Aussie John said...


I've found that "Go to bed with the birds, get up with the birds, best practice for me :).

Anonymous said...

I do believe some of us have a natural body rhythm which is in harmony with, segmented sleeping.
Not my dear hubby though, a 10 pm to 6 am guy.......and don't go waking him up at 1am.

Wade Burleson said...

Laughing. :)

Anonymous said...

During the early days of my ministry I heard preachers talk about how they would be awakened during the night and feel inspired to write or work on their sermon. On a particular night, I too was awakened with a sermon idea rolling around in my mind. I went to my desk and feverously wrote for about an hour. I returned to bed confident that I had captured my inspired thoughts. The next morning when I was fully awake I read what I had written just a few hours earlier. To my great disappointment, I discovered that what I had written made no sense at all.
I think, maybe, the working class people of the 1500's had the better idea about how to spend that time.

Unknown said...

Happy New Year Wade!

I had not heard of segmented sleep before, although there have been a few when I woke up in the middle of the night and did something productive.

Maybe I'll give it a try in 2014.

Anonymous said...

OH my!

Probably the worst part of the big M for me was "segmented sleep." No way could I get more than 2-4 hours sleep in a row, and the resulting fatigue was crushing.

I love being an old lady now. I sleep through many nights, occasionally wake once briefly and right back to sleep.

Much healthier!

But if someone thrives on segmented sleep, then I encourage it. Getting whatever sleep your own body needs is vital!


Anonymous said...

Interesting article! Two things I wonder about as I read this: perhaps sleeping "through the night" is a learned response. A conditioned behaviour. And the other is how advancements are not necessarily improvements!

I am pretty sure I have heard a sermon or two through the years (not from Wade) about examining myself and my sin if I am awake at 3am. I know that waking then really bothered me for a while because it seemed to prove the point, but I got over that after a while because it wasn't true.

But now 3am makes sense! If I go to bed three to four hours later than the birds do, or the sun sets, then it seems logical to wake at three AM instead of midnight! Hopefully those waking periods become more pleasant than a dread of not getting "enough" sleep! I find a dimmed ipad is enough to read by and fall asleep to (without dropping it!)

The line "The modern idea that good sleep is always eight or more hours of uninterrupted sleep is a recent belief" reminded me of the other fairly recent and, I believe, harmful teaching that nursing babies should be fed on a schedule. When we look closely how breastfeeding really works we see that there is a harmonious relationship between mother and baby which does not depend on a clock. And eating in the wee hours is beneficial to growth, not something to be trained out of in favour of "sleeping through the night".


Aussie John said...


Segmented sleep may have been healthy for those who went to sleep when darkness fell, but with the advent of artificial lighting we remained awake much longer, but I question whether it is, when we shorten the darkness our bodies and minds experience when we have shortened the darkness to a few hours.


Steve Bezner said...

Wade, do you think that is what is taking place in Mark 1:35, when Jesus prayed while it was still dark?