For the past 4 nights I have been waking up at 4am-ish. Every night for the past 4 days. It’s driving me insane especially as I have to be up at 6am to don my waiter’s hat, chef’s hat, housekeeping hat, mummy hat, chauffeur hat, maid hat etc! So I lay in bed, in the dark and googled it…”why do I keep waking up at 4am”. The results kept me awake until 6am! It was fascinating!!!
There are multiple theories about your body clock waking up due to certain internal organs working away and sending you certain messages of hunger, thirst, headaches etc. There are also spiritual theories (which I love) about how deceased loved ones are sending you messages between the hours of 3-5 a.m. so you should just lay and perhaps meditate and receive the images or messages they send to you. This is perfectly plausible and doable in my world.
However, what most intrigued me was the historical theory. Apparently, from around the 1600s to approximately 1800s we never used to sleep for a straight 9, 10 or 11 hours in one hit. Our sleep would be divided into a first sleep and a second sleep consisting of say five hours sleeping initially, waking up and being active for a few hours then returning to sleep for say five more hours before we would wake again and start our daily routines for the day. This type of sleep pattern is called Biphasic sleep. A sleep divided into two chunks over a 24hour period.
In between the first sleep and the second sleep our ancestors would engage in a diverse range of activities in the middle of the night, such as having sex…”pull my nightie back down when you’re done!!”, drinking (water from rivers and pumps was of course contaminated in those days so drinking beer and gin was the norm) or even going to have a chat with their neighbours!!! Also bear in mind that during winter the main fire in the house would have to be stoked regularly and maintained to keep the house warm for cooking, ironing, cleaning etc. so whoever was responsible for this would have had to keep watch in the night before they could return for their “second sleep”.
Chaucer mentions a “first sleep” and a “second sleep” in his Canterbuy Tales, historian Roger Ekirch wrote a book about it: ‘At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past’ and Dickens wrote about it frequently. There are also numerous mentions of first and second sleeps in medical journals, diaries, court papers and other similar papers of the 16th and 17th centuries. It was a very common practice and this was everyone’s routine.
Now, I’d just like to say here that however fascinating this is, I doubt highly that this would catch on today. I mean, if I went to knock on my neighbour’s door at 4am and said “I’m between sleeps….put the kettle on my darlings” they’d probably tell me what I could do with a kettle of boiling hot water and it wouldn’t involve sloshing it into my favourite seagull mug. Likewise, if I poured myself a glass of my beautiful G&T at 4am……well I’d be hokey-kokeying it into the playground with my drunken dancing legs kicking out for the morning school run while my poor son hides behind the “buddy bench” in the playground muttering “I hate my mother, I hate my mother”.
It was a simpler, albeit harder life that our ancestors had to lead. Living by candlelight often meant bedtime was at sun set so this gave the opportunity to have a ‘first sleep’ for several hours, wake in the middle of the night to do chores or relax then resume sleep until the sun rose for the next day. In today’s society, we are mainly governed by so many time limitations. Dinner at this time, school runs, working, commuting, after school clubs, socialising etc etc our lives are often crammed with schedules and hecticness that the thought of going to bed at 7pm is preposterous or a luxury hardly any of us can afford in our lives.
Frequently, what we all tend to do now is wake in the middle of the night and instantly panic. “AAGGGHHHHH!!!!! Why?? Why??” We scream into our pillows, laying awake watching shadows on our ceiling begging and pleading sleep to come to us. If our alarm goes off in two hours we will be a Satanic witch to our children and husbands if we don’t sleep properly and god forbid if we don’t get our coffee first thing!! “Children, get under the table! mummy’s coming and she was up at 4am thumping the pillow! I’ll be in the shed….”.
In contrast, our ancestors would seize this middle of the night waking opportunity to read a good book or chop some firewood or just sit in a chair and read for an hour or two before returning to bed. Perhaps if we also embraced our body’s internal suggestion to do the same – to have a cup of tea, read a chapter of our book and just relax into the situation of us waking up then it might not be so bad. It occurred to me while writing this….how many times have we woken up and said “Wow! I’ve had such a long deep sleep I actually feel really drunk / exhausted / can’t wake up today”. I’ve felt like that. Perhaps having such a long, deep sleep is not good for us. Maybe there’s some sense in having this first and second sleep.
There are many celebrities who wake at ungodly hours, 3, 4 am and start their day. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple rises at 4.30 and starts his day as does Disney CEO Robert Iger and Michelle Obama wakes at 4.30 to do her cardio routine. There is evidence of many other businessmen and businesswomen who rise at 4 or 5am and start their day and get so much accomplished before breakfast.
I, myself, have got into the habit of going to bed around 11.30pm and it’s normal for me to wake around 3 or 4am to stare at the ceiling trying to relax then returning to sleep about an hour later. My alarm used to go off at 6.30 so I could crack on with breakfasts, deal with my 8 year olds school uniform debates / showering debates, get myself ready, do the school run etc. I realised though that it was like a military rushed routine and it was hectic. I decided to set my alarm for 6am every day and I dreaded how exhausted I’d be at this time. For the first few times it was hard waking up at this time and I regularly hit the snooze button but after a while when I forced myself to get up at 6am it’s now become a lovely routine. A peaceful, quiet time of the morning when the birds are singing and the sun is rising. I write for about 30mins with a cup of tea in bed then I meditate then I start the morning routine and I just feel more awake and in a much more productive mood for waking up early.
Knowing I can do this 6am call, I am going to see if I can wake at 5.30 instead and get even more done. I’m a morning person for sure. When late night comes I’m always so exhausted but in the morning, after a cup of tea I’m usually ready for war!! It could be an interesting experiment.
There is so much more I could write about to do with the history of a Biphasic sleep – relating to illnesses and how your brain functions etc and also how good it is for your body to have a nap in the afternoon – there’s a whole blog I can do about that! but if I detailed it all here now this blog could become very very long. I will follow it up in time with more information as it’s really fascinating.
So, readers, if you do wake up tonight at 3 or 4am, embrace it. Keep calm, read a chapter of your book, go and have a cup of tea or just sit in a chair and meditate and soon you’ll find sleep returning quickly and calmly for your ‘second sleep’. Goodnight.
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