BY LISSA COFFEY
How, where, when and with whom we sleep varies widely but the need for a good night’s sleep never changes
Editor’s note: Savvy mattress retailers want to do everything they can to help their customers sleep better, including offering them sound advice and tips. Feel free to share this great guidance from Better Sleep Council spokeswoman Lissa Coffey with your shoppers (with credit given, of course). The BSC is the consumer-education arm of the International Sleep Products Association.
Everybody sleeps. We need it to stay alive. It’s a “reboot” time for the brain and body. But throughout history and across cultures, sleep traditions vary. We already know why we sleep, so let’s explore the “who, what, when and how” of sleep in the past and worldwide.
When and how much we sleep
In prehistoric days, people likely slept in two or more big chunks, especially during the long nights of the winter months. This is known as “biphasic” or “polyphasic” sleep, and it continues to be the norm in some nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies today. This sleep pattern allows people the 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. Such continuous, uninterrupted sleep is called “monophasic” sleep. With the introduction of the first electric light bulbs beginning in the late 1800s, people started staying up later. Today, we get much less sleep than our ancestors did in the days before everything was brightly illuminated.
When television first came into our homes, there were limited broadcast hours. No programming late at night meant not much else to do, so people often went to bed when the shows ended. Now, we not only have multiple channels of around-the-clock TV programming, 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 that 48% of Americans say they don’t get enough sleep.
Because of this, the nap is experiencing a kind of renaissance. Naps long have been a tradition among adults in many countries: Spain’s siestas come to mind (though today many Spaniards use siesta time to eat or run errands rather than sleep). In Japan, it’s customary to take a “work nap,” called an inemuri, to increase productivity and show professional commitment. In Japan, long work hours prevail and the quality of nighttime sleep has deteriorated, hence the need to take short naps while on the job. 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 and even a few schools. Employees and students are encouraged to use their break times for a quick nap in the hope that they come back to work or class refreshed and energized. Naps can be helpful but they also can interfere with required nighttime sleep and, if people sleep too little or too much during naptime, they can feel groggier than they did before the nap.
Sleep patterns vary from country to country. One study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed than while participants worldwide averaged about 7 ½ hours of sleep a night, the results from individual countries ranged widely. For example, in Japan, people slept an average of 6 hours and 53 minutes, while in Portugal, they slept an average of 8 hours and 24 minutes. The French averaged almost 9 hours of sleep per night, while those in Spain and the United States clocked about 8 ½ hours.
Given what we’ve discussed about sleep patterns in Japan, it’s no surprise that the Japanese have the latest bedtimes—16% of high school students there say they go to bed after 1 a.m. The early-riser award goes to Australia, where 12% of people get up before 5 a.m.
With whom we sleep
Who sleeps with us in the bed—or even in the room—influences how much sleep we get. “Co-sleeping,” in which the baby sleeps in the same bed as the mother, was widely popular until the 1800s and still is common practice in many traditional and developing countries. Some experts say co-sleeping is a practical arrangement that facilitates bonding and breastfeeding on demand, reducing stress on mother and baby. But other experts say co-sleeping makes the child too dependent on the mother and interferes with the relationship between the baby’s parents. Importantly, because of the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against co-sleeping with newborns. Instead, young infants should sleep in the same room with parents but by themselves on a firm sleep surface made specifically for babies. Cribs should be free of soft objects like toys and blankets.
In some countries, like Afghanistan for instance, family members often all sleep in the same central 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” TV show of the early 1950s, in which Lucy and Ricky shared a bedroom but slept in their own twin-size beds because the network didn’t want to show anything too racy on television. But that sleeping arrangement also was typical in many households at that time, as the bedding industry didn’t begin to standardize and promote queen and king sizes until later that decade. Even today, one in four U.S. couples sleep apart. Whether for comfort or convenience, they just prefer it that way.
And worldwide, many couples prefer to sleep apart. Studies show that 25% to 50% of married couples in Japan have either separate beds or separate rooms. In Canada, the number is estimated to be 30% to 40%.
Where we sleep and what we sleep on
In the United States, king and California king mattresses are favorites of many couples, but these large sizes aren’t as popular in other parts of the world. In Austria, Germany and Switzerland, for instance, a fashionable option is the paired double bed. It allows mattresses to be divided into two parts, allowing bedrooms to be arranged in more ways.
Japan introduced sleepers in the United States to futons. Because of their utility—doubling as a sofa for extra seating—they’ve been especially popular among college students and young people, as well as among those who need an extra sleeping surface in a living room or den. Most people in Japan favor Western-style mattresses, but the futon, and even the tatami mat, remain viable options for sleeping. In Central America and South America, hammocks often are used for midday siestas 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 tightly woven nets to keep insects out.
People everywhere in the world seem to acclimate to their environment so they can sleep. Even in busy urban areas like Cairo or New York, where there is traffic and other noise at all times of day and night, many people sleep soundly, even with their windows open. Typically, we think we need quiet to sleep, but after a long period of exposure, city noise becomes “white noise” and we don’t notice it as much. It’s likely a survival instinct of the human body. And while many people enjoy absolute quiet or soft, meditative music to lull them to sleep, others insist on drifting off with the TV on. Those TV watchers clearly haven’t read the advice from the Better Sleep Council—no technology in the bedroom! (For more sleep tips, check the BSC’s newly revamped website at BetterSleep.org.)
And no matter where in the world you live, how much sleep you get or with whom you sleep, you certainly will get a better quality of rest when you sleep on a comfortable and supportive quality mattress. Sweet dreams!
Lissa Coffey is a relationship expert, author of several books and broadcast journalist. A spokeswoman for the Better Sleep Council, she stars in several videos that offer sleep and mattress-shopping tips for consumers.