Everybody sleeps. We need sleep to stay alive. It’s our “reboot” time for the brain and body. But throughout history and cultures, sleep traditions vary. We already know “why” we sleep, and that doesn’t change no matter where we go. So, let’s explore the When, How, Who, Where and What in the worldwide study of sleep.
When and How Much We Sleep
Back in prehistoric days, sleep was likely broken up into two or more chunks during the long nights of winter months. This is known as “biphasic” or “polyphasic” sleep, and it continues in some nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies today. This sleep pattern allows people who need it more flexibility to sleep on and off throughout the day or night depending on their circumstances and what needs to be done.
In early farming societies, the typical sleep routine was to rise with the sun and sleep in the dark hours of night. This continuous, uninterrupted sleep is called “monophasic” sleep. With the introduction of electricity in the mid-1800s, which brought with it artificial light, people started staying up later. Now we get much less sleep than our ancestors did in the days before the lightbulb!
When television first came into our homes there were limited broadcast hours. No programming late at night meant nothing else to do, so people often went to bed when the shows ended. But now we not only have multiple channels of round-the-clock television, we’ve also got 24-hour access to the internet, meaning continuous entertainment, and many distractions to keep us up at night. Because of this, bedtimes have gotten later, yet we still need to get up early to get to work. It’s no surprise than 48% of Americans say they don’t get enough sleep.
Because of this, the nap is experiencing a kind of renaissance. Naps, or “siestas,” have been a long held tradition among adults in many countries, including Spain. In Japan, it is customary to take a work nap, called an “inemuri,” in order to increase productivity and show professional commitment to the job. Despite the inemuri, long work hours prevail, and hence the quality of nighttime sleep has deteriorated. It seems that sleep is more undervalued in Japan than anywhere else in the world, and sleep deprivation is endemic. In the United States, “nap pods” have become trendy in some companies. Employees are encouraged to use their break times for a quick nap in the hopes that they come back to work refreshed and energized. Though this isn’t always the case. Naps can interfere with much-needed nighttime sleep, and if people sleep too little, or too much during naptime, they can feel more groggy than they did before the nap.
Sleep patterns vary from country to country. One study from the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) showed than while overall participants got about 7.5 hours of sleep a night, the results from individual countries had quite a range. For example, in Japan the average night’s sleep duration for a person was 6 hours and 53 minutes, while in Portugal the average was 8 hours and 24 minutes. France came in at almost 9 hours, while the USA and Spain came in at about 8.5 hours a night.
When it comes to bedtime, it’s no surprise that Japan has the latest time – 16% of Japanese high school students say they go to bed after 1 am. And the early-riser award goes to Australia, with 12% of people getting up before 5 am.
Who We Sleep With
Who sleeps with us in the bed, or even in the room, has an influence on how much sleep we get at night. “Co-sleeping,” where the baby sleeps in the same bed as the mother, was popular until the 1800s, and is still common practice in many traditional or developing countries. Some experts claim that this facilitates bonding and breastfeeding on demand. They say it reduces stress on the mother and the baby as well as being practical. Others say that co-sleeping makes the child too dependent on the mother, and interferes with the parents’ relationship. The U.S. and some parts of Europe, including the United Kingdom, are in the minority of countries where parents expect their children to sleep in their own beds, in their own rooms.
In some countries, like Afghanistan for instance, family members all sleep in the same room. In the morning, they fold up their beds and blankets to make use of the room for other activities.
You might remember the “I Love Lucy” show, where Lucy and Ricky shared a bedroom and they each had their own twin-sized bed. Mostly that was done for the purposes of “standards and practices” of the network who didn’t want to show anything too racy on television. But that sleeping arrangement was also the case in many households at that time, as standardized sizes for king and queen mattresses didn’t hit the market until 1958. But even today, one in four U.S. couples sleep apart, for comfort or convenience, they just prefer it that way.
Worldwide, many more couples prefer to sleep apart. Studies show that 25-50% of married couples in Japan have either separate beds or separate rooms. In Canada, that number is 30-40%.
Where We Sleep and What We Sleep On
Here in the U.S. the King and California King mattresses are favorites for couples, but these large sizes aren’t as popular in other parts of the world. In Germany for example, as well as Austria and Switzerland, a fashionable option is the paired double bed. That way the mattresses can be divided into two parts and there are more ways the room can be arranged.
Japan introduced the U.S. to the futon, and because of its flexibility, doubling as a couch for extra seating, they’ve become trendy with college students and young people. Most people in Japan use western-style mattresses, but the futon, and even the Tatami mat, still remain viable options for sleeping. In Central and South America hammocks are often used at siesta time, and in some areas, they are the go-to for nighttime sleeping as well. In areas of the world where mosquitoes, and malaria are a problem, beds are covered with special nets to keep the bugs out.
People everywhere in the world seem to acclimate to their environment so that they can sleep. Even in busy, urban areas like Cairo, or New York City, where there is traffic noise at all times of day and night, people can sleep with their windows open. Usually we think we need quiet to sleep, but after a long period of exposure, that noise becomes “white noise” and we don’t notice it as much. It’s likely a survival instinct of the human body! While many people enjoy peace and quiet, or soft meditative music to lull them to sleep, others say they like to fall asleep with the television on. Those TV watchers clearly haven’t read the advice from The Better Sleep Council – no technology in the bedroom!
No matter where in the world you live, or how much sleep you get, or who you sleep with, you will certainly get a better quality of sleep when you sleep on a quality mattress. Sweet Dreams!
Lots of Sleep Tips at BetterSleep.org