Sleeping Like…Our Ancestors


Family members, childless friends, and strangers all ask, “How’s the baby sleeping?” It seems to be the one universal question we get regarding our seven-week-old. Parenting books tout their philosophy based on how effective their approach is to sleep. One of my favorite articles on infant sleep made its rounds on the Internet not long ago. Ava Neyer compiles the advice she gleaned from books on babies and sleep. One snippet reads:

Don’t let your baby sleep too long, except when they’ve been napping too much, then you should wake them. Never wake a sleeping baby. Any baby problem can be solved by putting them to bed earlier, even if they are waking up too early. If your baby wakes up too early, put them to bed later or cut out a nap. Don’t let them nap after 5 p.m. Sleep begets sleep, so try to get your child to sleep as much as possible. Put the baby to bed awake but drowsy. Don’t wake the baby if it fell asleep while nursing.

After spending most of Monkey Baby’s nighttime and daytime nursings scouring the internet for articles about sleep and what is normal, I have to agree with Ms. Neyer.

Since birth, Monkey Baby has woken up 2-4 times each night. Usually he sleeps for 3-4 hours in the beginning, then goes back to sleep for 2-3, and toward morning, he often wakes more frequently. This is the general pattern (although there have been those rough nights of waking every hour or so, too!).

I spent all of those hours researching (yes, instead of sleeping!) to make sure I was doing it all correctly. This whole young parenting thing seems very fragile, and it seems easy to irreversibly ruin our tabula rasa of a child not to mention our own lives. But eventually, I learned to ask myself, “Does this bother me?” “Does it bother me that he is waking up so much at night rather than sleeping for longer stretches?” “Is is all that bad that he often wakes and stays up for 1 hour or so in the middle of the night?” “Am I happy?” “Is he happy and growing?”

As I worked through these questions, I learned something important about this newborn sleep phase. Surprisingly I really don’t mind the way it is going. Since I am not teaching all day, I don’t mind not having the consistent 8.5 hours at night that I used to feel that I needed (seriously! sleep was something of an idol for me before!). These 2 am dances in the living room to Jack Johnson and Ella Fitzgerald, and that wonderful middle-of-the-night grin are things  I don’t want to miss!

There’s a lot of pressure to sleep train babies. Getting them to sleep for 8 solid hours seems to be the goal of the first year of parenting. While some babies fall into this fairly quickly, there are many babies (and frustrated parents) that still need to eat during the night for several months according to my research. This morning, though, a link popped up to the following article on sleep. It proves what I have read that this 8-hour sleep stretch is a more recent history, industrialized nation expectation (not a God-ordained pattern for all of life and parenting).

The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.

His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.

References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.

The English teacher side of me was intrigued by the author’s claim that even early works like The Canterbury Tales have this concept:

Chaucer tells of a character in the Canterbury Tales that goes to bed following her “firste sleep.”

So apparently that’s why I am not suffering as much as I would expect. Maybe this 8 hour single stretch of sleep is a bit over-glorified after all!


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