“For most of human history, we didn’t get all our sleep in one go,” says Michael Grandner, PhD, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona. “Nature didn’t dictate that you get to sleep now or never.” He traces our decline in daytime napping to the start of the industrial revolution, which solidified the monophasic sleep pattern (sleeping in one bout per night) that’s most common today.
“For most of human history, we didn’t get all our sleep in one go. Nature didn’t dictate that you get to sleep now or never.” —Michael Grandner, PhD
But just because it’s most common doesn’t mean the monophasic sleep pattern is the only way to rest. Alternative sleep schedules include polyphasic (three or more segments of sleep throughout the day and night) or biphasic (sleeping in two bouts, with both of them at night or with one during the day and one at night).
Considering our biology, the polyphasic option isn’t typically one that experts recommend—after all, we’re not nocturnal beings, so we should still be getting the majority of our sleep during the biological night, says Dr. Grandner. (A review of 22 studies on polyphasic sleep published in March advises steering clear, as well.) This is largely thanks to our natural circadian rhythm preferring to sleep when it’s dark.
“It tells us that we feel sleepy two times a day, once between noon and 2pm, and again at night, around 9 to 10pm,” says Raj Dasgupta, MD, associate program director of the Sleep Medicine Fellowship at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. This process is highly dictated by light, he adds: The lack of light at night allows the release of melatonin, making it easier to fall asleep then and cycle through all the sleep stages most effectively.
That said, getting most of your sleep during the night doesn’t have to mean sleeping in one long chunk if that isn’t working for you. A biphasic sleep pattern breaks sleep into two segments, and you can choose to do both segments at night, or do one longer segment at night and one shorter one during the day. The same best practices remain, though, that most of your sleep should be happening at nighttime, and the total amount of sleep you’re clocking in a 24-hour period still adds up to 7 to 8 hours, so you avoid sleep-deprivation land. Here’s a breakdown of each option:
Biphasic sleep pattern, with both segments at night
This sleep schedule entails sleeping in two roughly equal chunks, separated by a period of 30 to 90 minutes in the middle of the night, around 2 or 3 a.m. (You’ll need to go to bed a little earlier or wake up a little later so that you’re still able to fit in the full 7 to 8 hours.)
It may work well for those with a shallow sleep drive, who tend to wake up either before finishing up that full night of sleep or at some point during the night. “Think of your sleep journey like a road trip,” says Dr. Grandner. “If you know you’re going to run out of gas halfway to your destination, plan a pit stop to refuel the tank—this means, getting out of bed and reading a book, or doing any other low-cognition activity for 30 to 90 minutes. This way, you rebuild your hunger for sleep and can fall back asleep more easily once you return to bed.”
While the quality of sleep you get from dividing it into two bouts will likely be similar to that you’d get from sleeping fully through the night, the benefit to planning a pit stop comes for those who might normally be agitated or stressed by waking up in the middle of the night. “You don’t have to constantly panic that you’re going to run out of gas,” says Dr. Grandner. “You can pause, see the sites, enjoy some quiet me-time, then get back on your sleep journey—no stress.”
Biphasic sleep pattern, with one segment at night and one during the day
If you find that you can’t sleep through the night and your schedule allows you to pencil in at least two to three hours of sleep during the afternoon, you could try doing so as a different biphasic sleep pattern. What’s important to note here is the longer length of that daytime portion. “Sleep during the day is more fragile and less efficient,” says Dr. Grandner. “So, while you can make your way through a full sleep cycle in about an hour and a half at night, you’d need two to three hours for the equivalent during the day.” That way, you’ll reach REM sleep, the deepest restorative stage, and then emerge from it gradually to awaken. (Interrupting that cycle mid-REM is why hour-long naps can leave you groggy, whereas shorter power naps leave you refreshed by not allowing you to drop into that deep level of sleep in the first place.)
Keep in mind that if you’re going to sleep at all during the day, it should ideally be just once—either in the form of a power nap or the lengthier nap described above. Any more than that, and you can interfere with your homeostatic drive to sleep.
And while it’s great to have options to optimize your sleep routine, the pros agree that it’s only wise to explore alternative sleep schedules if monophasic sleeping isn’t working for you. If it is, though, don’t fix what isn’t broken.
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