“There is one stirring hour when a wakeful influence goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere. At what inaudible summons are all these sleepers thus recalled in the same hour to life? [They] have not a guess as to the means or purpose of this nightly resurrection. Towards two in the morning they declare the thing takes place; and neither know nor inquire further. We are disturbed in our slumber only that we may the better and more sensibly relish it.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of A Child’s Garden of Verses, penned these words in 1878 while on a twelve-day trek through the highlands of France. One evening at sunset Stevenson settled under some pine trees and, after enjoying a meal of bread and sausage, chocolate, water, and brandy, he crawled into his “sleeping sack” and fell asleep. He awoke shortly past midnight, and spent the next hour smoking and contemplating the night sky before falling into a slumber that would be “the better and more sensibly relish[ed]” because of the wakeful interlude.
Stevenson’s poetic reflections on that “one stirring hour” suggest a deep appreciation for what we now call “segmented sleep.” Segmented sleep, or a two-shift sleep pattern, was the norm for humans for the thousands of years prior to the industrial age. Homer even refers to “first sleep” in his Odyssey, which was written in the 8th century B.C. That “first sleep,” during which people would go to bed and sleep for a few hours, would typically take place soon after sunset. Sleepers would then awaken and stay awake for a period before turning in for their “second sleep.” This period of wakefulness came to be called the night watch. During the 19th century, the night watch was a time to stoke the fire, brew ale, write letters, do housework, visit neighbors, or stargaze. Married couples might spend the night watch engaged in more tender pursuits. Other folks might follow the advice of Ben Franklin, who said that “Those who can afford to have two beds will find great luxury in rising when they wake in a hot bed, and going into the cool one.”
Of course, the night watch offered fewer pastime options to breastfeeding mothers. Then as now, a breastfeeding mother would most likely spend the night watch nursing her baby, with the only difference being that, in the old days, mama couldn’t watch “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” reruns while doing so. When I was a nursing mother, the 2:00 AM feedings were a regular thing; in fact, once Baby and I had established a nighttime “pattern” – it was too flexible to be called a nighttime “schedule” or “routine” – I even began to look forward to those wee-hour nursing sessions. I enjoyed the feeling of continuity that came from mothering my baby in the same way that other mothers had done for hundreds of thousands of nights before me. To me, the nighttime feedings weren’t so much a disruption of sleep as they were a gentle “wakeful interlude.” And I sensed that Baby’s own 2:00 AM wakefulness was due to a natural impulse rather than a “bad habit” (to use the pediatrician’s term).
There was some scientific basis for my notions. The age-old practice of segmented sleep was rooted in circadian rhythm, commonly called the “body clock.” The body clock is endogenously driven, which means that it does not depend upon environmental cues. This fact was borne out by a landmark study that was conducted in the early 1990s by the National Institute of Mental Health. Study participants were exposed to natural and artificial light for 10 hours each day and confined to a dark room for 14 hours each night. Each of the eight subjects developed a sleep pattern similar to that followed in the preindustrial era, sleeping in two sessions of about 4 hours each, separated by 1 to 3 hours of quiet wakefulness. During the wakeful period, the subjects’ level of prolactin soared, causing them to experience a meditative state that was in keeping with the historical description of the night watch as a time of contentment. It’s interesting to note that prolactin is essential to the production of breast milk. While a mother breastfeeds, her body releases prolactin, which in turn signals the milk glands to make more breast milk. The surge in prolactin might explain the feeling of “mellowness” often experienced by both mother and baby during a nursing session.
But if segmented sleep is our natural pattern of rest, why have we discarded it in favor of consolidated sleep?
Blame the shift on our nonstop culture. Electric lighting, all night TV programming, computers, global travel, and 24-hour shopping all contribute to an environment that is downright hostile to natural sleep patterns. The availability of baby formula, which allows a mother more freedom in scheduling her days and nights, has made breastfeeding a mere option. In subjugating our body clocks to our frenzied schedules, we both deprive ourselves of the caliber of sleep that nature intended and eliminate those wakeful nighttime hours during which Robert Louis Stevenson said “life begins again afresh.”
“In my whole life I have never tasted a more perfect hour of life,” said the poet of his night watch in the highlands of France. Perhaps it’s time that our frenetic modern culture consider a return to the segmented sleep pattern, and experience that blissful hour in which
“the cock first crows, not this time to announce the dawn, but like a cheerful watchman speeding the course of night. Cattle awake on the meadows; sheep break their fast on dewy hillsides, and change to a new lair among the ferns; and houseless men, who have lain down with the fowls, open their dim eyes and behold the beauty of the night…We have a moment to look up on the stars.”
Or, perhaps, to look down at our littlest wonders.