My mother was famous for her “I’m going to lay down for 20 minutes” naps. Her routine originated as a parent who worked inside the home, strategically plotting out her allotted alone time prior to five children busting through the door afterschool. Occasionally, we caught her in the middle of a nap and shook her awake, despite concerns for our personal safety or eardrums. Her nap was closed out by the kitchen timer. She rose from the bedsheet-covered couch, washed her face in the bathroom, and immediately grilled us about school activities.
Our bodies long for midday naps. Afternoon siestas are common in many cultures, they’re just not as accepted in America. Even our pets are aware of our needs. My spaniel would wander into my office after lunch and curl around my feet, the warmth of his fur enticing me to join him. Now that he’s gone, I nap less and miss him more. He was my excuse to snooze.
We tend to resist naps and sleep and don’t plan for them because of our frenetic lifestyles and societal expectations. And, we forget that listening to our bodies is a healthy part of our routine.
In Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, the protagonist partitions his sleep time to maintain two disparate lifestyles. In preindustrial times in the West, people were known to break up their sleeping patterns into segmented sleep. One block might begin around 8 p.m. and extend for a period of four hours or so. Another block would start up again around 2 a.m. and again extend another few hours. Humans found this in-between time productive. There were no forced interactions for business or the household. One could read, write, meditate, make love all without interruption or experiencing guilt for not performing other tasks.
The French called this occurrence dorveille, or wakesleep, a hypnotic state. English speakers called it “the watch.”
This inclination came to light in our current culture when historian Roger Ekirch stumbled upon research of pre-19th-century Europe by an American who studied the body’s physiological rhythms. In 1992, Ekirch claimed segmented sleep was a more natural way of accomplishing rest than the straight-through-the-night variety. In fact, if we were still living in preindustrial conditions, our bodies would align themselves with our internal clocks and revert to subdivided sleep once more.
When I’m unable to fall asleep after waking at one a.m., I often panic. The research above encourages me. If I rose from bed, my husband wouldn’t miss me. He would know I meandered to my office in the thick of nighttime. My productivity and creativity might be impacted positively. The author of the study considered this period “non-anxious wakefulness” versus insomnia. We could all use a little less anxiety around our state of wakefulness or lack of sleep, especially as we grow older.
Sleeping Patterns Change
As my mother aged, she maintained her early riser status, a predisposition she imprinted on her children, and rarely altered her naps. Yet studies have shown our sleep changes as we advance in years, not necessarily in total hours, and is impacted by a variety of concerns.
After menopause, women especially face sleep challenges due to hormonal changes. And when full-time work no longer requires our complete attention, more naps kick in, thus altering our bedtime routines. It’s also estimated one quarter of older adults ages 64-85 experience four or more mental or physical health challenges and this grouping reportedly receives less than six hours of sleep per day.
Our internal clock, like the rest of our bodies, ages too, influencing circadian rhythms. We set these clocks by exposure to light. Research at the National Library of Medicine shows older adults receive an insufficient amount of daylight, some only one hour per day. These adults might reside in smaller homes, are part of a care center, live alone or with lesser number of people in the household. Because of this, many care home settings incorporate skylights and courtyards into their designs. Caregivers and family members should also focus on escorting loved ones outside or near light as much as possible. This keeps the gears of the internal clock churning and aids in the reduction of sundowning instances.
While napping is beneficial, sleeping for too long or too close to day’s end will interfere with desired sleep later in the evening. However, my father napped after dinner, stayed up to watch the 11 o’clock news and woke early to water his garden. He had segmented sleep all figured out.
What is the right answer to the question of how much sleep we need? It’s different for all of us. But strategic sleep or napping may break up the long days or nights which often cause anxiety. Giving ourselves permission to read a book at two in the morning might offer a period of restful sleep. And a boost of creativity to follow.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press) and is a recipient of a 2020 NSNC award. A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, Shanti Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, and others. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.