Why Can't I Sleep? What Is Normal Sleep? Segmented Sleep Patterns

Normal Sleep

More and more scientists and psychiatrists are coming to the conclusion that historically, segmented sleep is normal and the modern continuous 8-hour sleep routine is not normal.

Different labels have been created to describe sleep patterns of people who cannot sleep through the night for 7-8 hours straight, for the most part uninterrupted -- insomnia, middle-of-the-night insomnia, and so on. Doctors often prescribe medications to help people who cannot seem to sleep straight through the night for 7-8 hours.

It seems that what has been, and for some people still is, considered insomnia or abnormal sleeping, is actually normal. It seems that what has been, and by some people still is, considered normal sleeping, is not normal. Is that clear as mud? Let me explain.

I'm soooo tired . . .


Until the 19th century, segmented sleep patterns had been “normal” for 18 centuries!

It turns out that until modern times, it was not common for people to sleep straight through the night for 7-8 hours without interruption. In times gone by, it seems that the common, normal sleep pattern was to sleep in 4-hour blocks with a little awake-time in between those 4-hour blocks. This is sometimes referred to as biphasic sleep, which simply means divided into two separate phases or stages.

Virginia Tech University Sleep Historian Roger Ekirch says, “Humans slept in two four-hour blocks, which were separated by a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night lasting an hour or more. During this time some might stay in bed, pray, think about their dreams, or talk with their spouses. Others might get up and do tasks or even visit neighbors before going back to sleep," (Wolchover).

Modern Times Have Changed Our Sleep Routines

A lot of experts believe the change in the way we sleep, and think about sleep, came about when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and made it possible to have light whenever we want it.

Up until the last two centuries or so, people slept in a biphasic pattern, and had been doing so since the beginning of time. It is only in the last two centuries that people have gotten the idea that sleeping 7-8 hours continuously is the desired ideal and therefore ‘normal.’ Not surprising then, that so many people have trouble sleeping those 7-8 hours straight when for 18 centuries (compared to 2 centuries) people naturally slept in segmented 3-4 hour blocks at a time.

Your Natural Circadian Rhythm May Be Waking You Up

According to Ekirch, people used to discuss their sleep routines by referring to them as “first sleep, second sleep, morning sleep,” and “deep sleep.” In fact, prior to the 19th century, it was common to refer to sleep in this manner even in legal depositions, and the records of this practice still exist (Wolchover).

Ekirch “hypothesizes” that people with especially “strong circadian rhythms,” “as old as humanity itself,” (Ekirch), still revert to the segmented sleep routine,” (wolchover). These people are most likely to complain of insomnia and difficulty getting back to sleep when they frequently wake in the middle of the night.

According to Marshall Brain from Brain Stuff, “In fact, during clinical experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health, human subjects deprived of light at night for weeks at a time exhibited a segmented pattern of sleep closely resembling that related in historical sources (as well as that still exhibited by many wild mammals),” (Brain).

The Human Body Knows What Is Natural and Normal For It

It seems logical to me that people will meet with considerable resistance from the human body, no matter how hard they may try, when they attempt to force a change to a biological pattern that was normal for centuries. I would compare that to trying to force change chickens to behave like tigers. Perhaps it is the determination of people to be what they are not, or behave in a manner they were never intended to, that has created the concept of insomnia when all along the human body has been simply trying to function like normal instead of the way people are trying to force them to function.

Read more about this subject at the URLs I used as references for this hub.


Brain, Marshall. “How are human beings supposed to sleep? What is our natural sleep cycle? How segmented sleep works.” Brainstuff. How Stuff Works. 20 March 2011. n. page. Online. Internet. December 22, 2011. Available http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2011/03/22/how-are-human-beings-supposed-to-sleep-what-is-our-natural-sleep-cycle-how-segmented-sleep-works/

Ekirch, A. Roger. “Sleep We Have Lost: Commentary.” Department of History, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. 1999 – 2011. n. page. Online. Internet. December 21, 2011. Available http://www.history.vt.edu/Ekirch/sleepcommentary.html

Wolchover, Natalie. “Busting the 8-Hour Sleep Myth: Why You Should Wake Up in the Night.” Life’s Little Mysteries. Real Clear Science. 17 February 2011. n. page. Online Internet. December 25, 2011. http://www.realclearscience.com/2011/02/17/busting_the_8-hour_sleep_myth_239851.html

© 2012 C E Clark

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Comments 52 comments

Au fait profile image

Au fait 20 months ago from North Texas Author

Peachpurple, thank you for stopping by!

peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 20 months ago from Home Sweet Home

science is a brilliant evidence to show whats going on in our body system

Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

I wasn't referring to you Bobby. People in general have memory and learning problems when they don't get enough sleep. Was mainly agreeing with you -- I hardly remember the Sandman. xx

diogenes profile image

diogenes 3 years ago from UK and Mexico

Good morning, Misty...I resemble that remark!! xo

Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

Thank you for stopping by Diogenes. I, too vaguely remember the Sandman as sleep seems to evade me most of the time and it's known that people who don't get enough sleep have memory problems -- I wrote about that in another article about Not Enough Sleep Can Make you Fat -- I left stupid out of the title, but in fact research suggests lack of sleep can also affect a person that way.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

TinHunzo, thank you for your inquiry. As it happens, my baby (now 25 years old) was what is now referred to as a 'high-need' baby when she was first born. She cried continually and only stopped to nurse. She only slept for a few minutes, maybe 30, at a time a few times a day. She wore me out. The first few months after she was born were very challenging.

Two things we (my husband and I) discovered that helped her to stop crying were that she loved to read and she liked football.

Yup, at just a week old I was reading picture books with her that had fairly simple but colorful pictures. I would point out the different objects and name them, state their color and different parts if applicable, and read the single line of story at the bottom of the page. She loved it and still loves reading to this day.

Also, she liked watching football games with her father on TV! He would lay her on his chest facing away from him and towards the TV and she would watch the game with him -- no crying!

I can't guarantee these things will work for your baby or anyone else's, but they worked for mine.

Also, try Googling "Purple crying" and see if you can find some suggestions that way. You can also put "Purple Crying' in our Hubpages search box because I know some people on here have written about that subject.

You have my sympathy and best wishes for a satisfactory solution. If nothing else, time will solve the problem. I had no relatives close by to help, but if you do have family or close friends you trust who can give you a break if only for a few minutes here and there, take advantage of them.

diogenes profile image

diogenes 3 years ago from UK and Mexico

I also recommend a good shag for activating the Sandman, Misty, I vaguely remember what one of those was!


TinHunzo 3 years ago

Hi, does anyone have any ideas about the easiest way to get their infant to sleep?

I have read many websites with suggestions but I am still finding it very hard.

Best wishes

Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

Thank you Peggy W for pinning this hub!

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

Came back to let you know that I am going to pin this to my health related board on Pinterest. I think that others will find this information interesting.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

Thanks for stopping by Shyron. Good for you! My flu is better but it's still hard to sleep.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

Thank you torrilynn for reading and commenting, and voting on this hub! I hoped when I researched and wrote this hub that at least some people who have trouble sleeping would realize that they're trying to force their bodies to do something unnatural by sleeping for 8 hours straight. Sometimes relaxing/destressing a person can make the problem better or solve it all together!

Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

moonlake, thank you for reading and commenting, voting, and especially sharing this hub. According to our history, biphasic sleep patterns are normal for all of us. I hoped shedding some light on that fact would lower the stress levels for a lot of people thereby enabling them to sleep more easily.

torrilynn profile image

torrilynn 3 years ago

Au fait,

thanks for the hub

I never knew what segmented sleep pattern were

until now thanks for the history lesson and great information

Voted up

Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

I am back, I slept last night a straight nine hours.

moonlake profile image

moonlake 3 years ago from America

I wake at times I wish I wouldn't wake stay up a couple hours then have to go back to bed. I also sometimes take small naps. If I make it through the night without waking I'm thrilled but I have always been this way so I guess it is normal for me. Voted up and shared.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

Peggy W, thank you for reading, commenting, voting, and especially sharing this hub! 'Experts' agree that we all need an average of 7-8 hours of sleep every night for maximum benefit, but I agree with you that every single one of us do not necessarily fit neatly into the same box. ;)

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

What a fascinating article! I had never heard of this "normal" biphasic sleep from centuries past. It would seem that everyone has their own "normal" when it comes to how much sleep they require. My husband has always required fewer hours of sleep at night than I do. Voted UUI and will share.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

Getting enough sleep is important to everyone's overall health. Biphasic sleep was normal for most people before the lightbulb was invented and if incorporated into one's life, it could make the difference between being tired all the time or getting enough sleep -- Finally. It works pretty well for me.

Thanks for your comments, Shyron!

Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 4 years ago

The more I read this hub, the more I think there is no normal when it comes to sleep. Wonderful hub!

Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

Thank you Millionaire Tips for reading and commenting on this hub! Yes, it would seem that what is normal in the way of sleep habits for humans isn't so different from what is normal for animals.

Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 4 years ago from USA

Wow that is really interesting. I had no idea that people woke up in the middle of the night like this. I guess that would make sense for the long winter nights. Voted up.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

KenWu: Thank you for reading and commenting, and for following! Yes, people lived very differently before electricity and the light bulb. If you think about it, every technological breakthrough leads to changes in human habits -- but our bodies may not agree.

You might also find my hubs on biphasic and polyphasic sleep of interest.

KenWu profile image

KenWu 4 years ago from Malaysia

This is a very useful article. I never knew that human was (and is still) used to sleep in four hours blocks. And so it was light that made us evolved in the sleeping aspect of our lives...

Rated up and useful!

Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

Angel: Thank you again for making comments. Lots of people are surprised to learn we used to have different sleep patterns than what we have come to think of as 'normal.' I was very surprised myself and happened upon the subject accidentally. I'm glad if knowing about our natural sleep habits will help other people.

Angel Mehsinjer profile image

Angel Mehsinjer 4 years ago from United States

This is so interesting! I didn't know that about sleeping in segments before the light bulb was invented. This makes me feel better. I will look at sleep differently after this. Thanks for the info!

Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

Dr. Ope: Yes, I think if people realize their sleeping patterns are normal after all, it will remove a lot of the stress that makes it even harder to sleep. Glad this hub was helpful. Thank you for your comments!!

Dr.Ope profile image

Dr.Ope 4 years ago

aufait, thank you for writing this hub. I thought I had a serious sleeping problem, because I never been able to sleep for 8 hours! I sleep for 3 hours then I am awake! I always tell persons that I have chronic insomnia. thank you for this information - I am normal after all!

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

tillisontitan: Agree about the power naps. Only tried sleeping pills once a long time ago and they were no help to me. Antihistamines, the ones that say they won't make you sleepy, will put me right to sleep, but I don't want to rely on them.

Thanks for your comments!

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

Perspycacious: Getting enough sleep even if not in the way we are taught (8-hours straight) lowers stress. Stress kills, so if you can relax your attitude a little about sleep and stop worrying that it isn't working the way we've been taught to believe it should (again, 8-hours straight), you are bound to be healthier and live longer.

Thank you for your comments!

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

alipuckett: I wake up every 3-4 hours also, and usually get up and try to do something worthwhile because otherwise a lot of things wouldn't get done -- I'd be too tired to do them later. I try to get to bed really early because I know I'll have that break in the middle. Going with the flow lowers stresss and stress kills. That is why I think it's important for people to understand that for most people, sleeping 8 hours straight isn't normal and worrying about it will only make it harder to sleep and raise one's stress levels.

Thank you for your comments!

alipuckett profile image

alipuckett 5 years ago

So interesting! I am definitely a biphasic sleeper. Unless, I'm absolutely exhausted, I usually wake up after about 4 hours of sleeping. I lie in bed or walk around for about an hour before going back to sleep for the other 4. I always thought it was weird, but now I know it's completely normal!

Perspycacious profile image

Perspycacious 5 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

The 30 minutes to one hour nap some call a "siesta" is a key factor in reducing heart disease. The problem is sneaking them in, or working for an enlightened taskmaster.

tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 5 years ago from New York

Maybe this article will help people stop taking sleeping pills. Sleep when you're tired and take a nap if you need to. Sometimes a 10 minute power nap is all you need. I enjoyed reading this and your facts. Very interesting. Voted up. thanks for SHARING.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

Johnny Windows: Segmented sleep patterns are not simply taking a nap. Instead, it would be like you going to bed at your usual time at night, then 4 hours or so later getting up and taking a window washing crew out for a couple of hours to work, and then going back home for another 3-5 hours of sleep before getting up again, to take another window cleaning crew out for the day.

Thanks for your comment!

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

Maximizer: Thank you for commenting on my hub! I think if people understood that sleeping in segments is natural it would solve a lot of problems to work around that schedule. Thank you for sharing my hub, and I'm on my way this minute to check out yours.

Jonny windows profile image

Jonny windows 5 years ago from u.k.

i often have an afternoon nap, im sure you do too ! ;-)

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

Brett: Agree that people rely too much on chemicals to accomplish things for them. I never take anything when I can't sleep. I just tough it out later if I fall short.

I'll be writing more on the subjects of both biphasic and polyphasic sleeping, in the future. I think it may be the cutting edge on sleep issues.

Thank you for your comments and for sharing!

Maximizer profile image

Maximizer 5 years ago from San Jose, Costa Rica

This was really informative. I sometimes have trouble getting to sleep, only to find myself awake 3 or 4 hours later. I guess this is why! Thanks for SHARING

Brett.Tesol profile image

Brett.Tesol 5 years ago from Thailand

A very interesting read. I have never slept straight through the night, but as I am not tired, I've also never considered it to be a problem. Waking in the night is normal, people worry about things too much nowadays and take pills for everything.

Voted up, interesting and SOCIALLY SHARING.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

I've noticed as time goes on that I have trouble sleeping for more than 3-4 hours at a time. I think given that humans slept in 3-4 or 5 hour segments for 18 centuries and then the lightbulb came along, that employers are trying to force humans to sleep on their schedule instead of what is normal for humans. I think trying to fight mother nature is going to be a losing battle for most people who will end up on sleeping meds in order to conform to employer requirements.

GypsyFootedWoman profile image

GypsyFootedWoman 5 years ago

This is a very interesting article. I suffer from bouts of insomnia, sometimes lasting for months at a time. I’ve never really been a 7-8 hour a nighter, there have been times when I have contemplated selling all my worldly possessions for just 4 solid hours of restful sleep.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

You just never know, R2-D2-2. When it comes to employers the tend to be more interested in what they think is good or them no matter what works best for people. If any changes occur as a result, I think it will take a very long time.

Thanks for your comments!

R2-D2-2 profile image

R2-D2-2 5 years ago from USA

This sounds like me. I wonder if the work week will ever change because of this information? I know the school schedules of teenagers has changed because of research that shows they have a different body rhythm.

Interesting . .

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

When there's nothing to keep a person to a particular schedule (and often times even when there is), the body seems to want to revert to the segmented pattern of just 3-5 hours and then a break of an hour or more before resuming sleep.

Thank you for commenting, Shyron.

Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 5 years ago

I think that when I wake-up and don't feel the need to go back to bed then I have had enough. But I love to sleep and dream.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

I first learned about segmented sleeping on the History Channel several months ago. It was surprising to me how much the explanation for segmented sleep fit my sleeping habits. It seems reasonable to me that if people have had segmented sleep habits for 18 centuries and have only recently attempted to severely modify those patterns, that the modifications might not work out very well for a lot of people.

Thank you KLauer for adding your input to the discussion. It is much appreciated!

KLauer 5 years ago

This is very interesting. Several years ago I heard about the body wanting to sleep in 4 hour increments but I never researched it. Since my son has "sleeping issues" I started to research "sleeping issues in teenagers". I don't remember where I read it, but I read that the natural melatonin in adolescents kicks in later in the evening or early morning hours, and earlier in the evening for younger children and older adults. I thought that was interesting because I wanted to stay up all hours of the night when I was his age, and had little problem sleeping just 4 or 5 hours a night (as long as I didn't do it several nights in a row).

Once while in the doctors office I was watching the TV they play with various health questions, and one of the questions was: "Before electricity was invented, how long was the normal amount of sleep for a person each night?" I think the answers to choose from were a) 6 hours; b) 8 hours; and c) 10 hours. The answer was 10 hours each night, which I found very interesting.

I always wake up about 4 hours after I go to sleep each night and most people I know seem to do the same. I know, however, that I need more sleep before performing an 8+ hour work day. Your post and research is very interesting and put it well that our bodies may just be working naturally.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

I don't think I could have made things more clear than you have! ;) The only really bad thing about not getting enough sleep or not being able to sleep when one is dog tired, is that it's miserable. If a person doesn't get their sleep and they have to put in 8 or more hours on the job, it's tough. If I could just work from home, sleep would hardly ever be an issue.

Thank you Bob, for adding your profound insight to the discussion! xx

diogenes profile image

diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico

When you are of mature age, you wake up several times needing a pee! People WORRY too much...I know I do. They worry about not sleeping 8 straight, they worry about not taking a crap at the same time every morning; they worry and worry, making all their problems worse. The body is a marvellous organism. You won't die if you have interrupted sleep or if you take irregular dumps...STOP WORRYING! Bob

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas Author

My sleep habits have been 'strange' most of my life, and they seem to get more so as time goes on. I, too, found this information interesting because it seems like sleeping just a few hours at a time is what works best for me most of the time.

Thank you KrystalD. I really appreciate your taking time to read and comment!

KrystalD profile image

KrystalD 5 years ago from Los Angeles

I appreciated this hub because I certainly have "strange" sleep patterns! By this I mean I have trouble falling asleep. I thought it was interesting to see how our views on sleep have changed over time.

I also think culture plays a role. When I lived in Egypt it was no big deal for people's days to start quite late. I also think the expectations of our days are heavy! Wish I could afford the time to wake and "stay in bed, pray, think about their dreams, or talk."

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