Biphasic Sleep and “The Watch” Syndrome

Are You Working Overtime at Night?

First Sleep, Second Sleep, and “The Watch”


Do you wake up at night? Do you have to eat a snack, drink some milk, or read a book to return to sleep? According to the Cleveland Clinic, one in three adults worldwide have insomnia symptoms (30% in the U.S.)

The NHSinform (National Health Service of Scotland) lists the following as common causes of insomnia: stress, anxiety, poor sleep environment (uncomfortable bed, too much light, noise, too hot or cold, alcohol, caffeine, and change in work hours).

But, have you ever considered that the cause may be “The Watch?” A forgotten medieval habit of sleeping in two shifts, once in the evening and once in the morning (“first sleep” and “second sleep”), included a period of wakefulness and activity in between – “the watch.” This unusual phenomenon of double sleeping, or “biphasic sleep” was common in England and Europe (and other societies around the globe) during the Middle Ages and until the industrial revolution.

The watch followed a period of sleep of usually about two hours, and lasted typically from 11:00 pm to 1:00 am. “This period of wakefulness was a surprisingly useful window in which to get things done. People did just about anything and everything after they awakened from their first sleep… from tending to ordinary tasks, such as adding wood to the fire, taking remedies, or going to urinate (often into the fire itself).

“For peasants, waking up meant getting back down to more serious work – whether this involved venturing out to check on farm animals or carrying out household chores.

“The watch was also a time for religion,” with specific prayers for exact time periods.

“But most of all, the watch was useful for socializing – and for sex.”

And, not unexpectedly, “criminals took the opportunity to skulk around and make trouble.”

So, is there any evidence that this is a normal circadian pattern?

In the early 1990s, a study by Thomas Wehr experimented with shortening men’s hours of light exposure to only ten hours per day, with fourteen hours confined to a dark room. After four weeks, the men were sleeping in a divided pattern of two halves with one to three hours in between of wakefulness. Wehr had reinvented biphasic sleep.

Another study, in 2015, involved volunteers from a remote area in Madagascar that had no electricity and no lights at night. The volunteers wore an “actimeter” that could track sleep cycles for ten days. The researchers found that subjects with no artificial light had a period of activity from about midnight until 1:00 or 1:30, then would fall back to sleep until 6:00 a.m. and sunrise.

Why has this pattern of biphasic sleep disappeared?

Actually, it still exists in small areas of the world, but the evidence seems to point to the Industrial Revolution, with artificial lighting as the cause for the end of biphasic sleep.

But, do some of us maintain a hidden need for a natural sleep pattern? Is it possible that our modern lifestyle and pattern of sleep is not what our bodies and brain really crave?

Do you have insomnia? Does it occur at a specific time? How long does it usually last?

What do you do to get back to sleep?

Do you make use of this time for writing or reading?

Have you found a book you would like to nominate for most likely to make you sleepy?

49 thoughts on “Biphasic Sleep and “The Watch” Syndrome

  1. Good morning, Steve.

    My sleep pattern, alas, is all over the place. I guess that means it’s not a pattern. I sleep through the night if I stay up through half of it. Late to bed and early to rise/I greet the dawn with bloodshot eyes. Midnight to 6:30AM is my optimum. If I go to bed earlier I am awake at 3:30AM, tossing and turning like Bobby Lewis.

    I am also on an AA calling list so I keep my phone on all night. And yes, folks do call. I figure that I can sleep Warren Zevon style, when I’m dead.

    The biphasic sleep pattern is interesting. I may try that out, though not while driving.

    Thanks so much for an interesting essay this morning, Steve. Have a great weekend!

    • Good morning, Joe. I like your second verse to Ben Franklin’s early-to-bed nocturnal poetry. Your pattern of waking at 3:30AM sounds suspicious for the biphasic sleep pattern. If you find an activity for 3:30 AM that helps you get back to sleep, let us know.

      I usually wake up at 2:30 – 3:30AM. I keep an insulated glass of cold milk at my bedside, drink that, and read. Most times, after an hour of reading, I am able to go back to sleep.

      Thanks for weighing in this morning. Have a great weekend!

  2. Though I’ve been extremely fortunate that I’ve had no sleeping problems whatsoever almost my whole life, the last 1.5 years I’ve been lucky if I get 6 hours’ sleep.

    I’m by far a morning person & the plan is to sleep 9p-4a. 4:00 a.m. being the magic start time for me as I like to start my day with prayer & meditation, get some chores done & then next thing you know it’s time to clock in for work.

    Anything 3:59 a.m. and before I consider middle of the night. That’s why I shrug off the advice when someone says “get up a half hour earlier to write”. I’m like nope. Not gettin’ up in the middle of the night, even for writing. LOL!

    Inevitably, because there are so many chores and tasks to be done in the evening, I don’t usually get to bed until 9:30 or 10p. And getting 6 hours’ sleep would not be so bad, but now, it’s more like 5.25-5.5 hours because I inevitably wake up around 3:15a, which just isn’t adequate (& makes me grumpy). Dealing w/some stress & health factors, trying some slight alterations to lifestyle to try & deal with it.

    The biphasic sleep idea is an interesting one, but given that until recently sleep hasn’t been an issue, not a concept that I think applies to me. I find any kind of sleep disruption extremely frustrating (like the knucklehead who decides to come back to the apartment complex with his obnoxiously loud motorcycle at 2:00 a.m.), especially when there aren’t enough hours in the day in the first place.

    Joe–bless you for being on call like that. What an awesome act of kindness & I can only imagine all the people you have helped.

    • BK, thanks for sharing your story. I’ve always envied people who could get by on six hours of sleep. And I couldn’t imagine getting up at 4 a.m. But, if it works for you, that’s great. And, I agree, you’re already getting up “half an hour earlier.”

      Now, if you could start up your Harley outside the knucklehead’s window at 4 a.m. (when he arrived home at 2 a.m.), that would be a perfect start to the day.

      • “Now, if you could start up your Harley outside the knucklehead’s window at 4 a.m. (when he arrived home at 2 a.m.), that would be a perfect start to the day.”

        Good idea! And I do that while playing Toby Keith’s “How Do Ya Like Me Now?” 😎 😎 😎

  3. Chronic insomniac here. I have an iPad mini that I can set to “just bright enough to see” with a dark background and an enlarged font so I don’t need my glasses. It helps shift my brain from “fix the world” to following characters.

    • Thanks for sharing your solution, Terry. Does your insomnia hit at a particular time each night? How long does it take for the iPad to get you back to sleep?

      Any recommendations for a book that is guaranteed to get you sleepy?

      • As with everything, “it depends” on what woke me up, what time it is, etc. Normally, it’s about 30 minutes, give or take, as long as I haven’t hit a high-intensity action, high-stakes chapter. I confess I don’t always retain a lot of my night reading, so I try not to have a book that requires a lot of concentration there.

        • Thanks, Terry. In light of what JSB wrote about blue light, those iPad settings with a dark background may be important. And getting back to sleep in 30 minutes sounds good to me. Thanks!

  4. I’m a type 2 diabetic and my sleep used to be a nightmare when my glucose was out of control. I’d pass out after dinner and wake up at 1 AM with insomnia. Or I’d go to sleep at a normal hour but wake up frequently to use the bathroom or desperately drink water.

    Now I’ve lost 40 lbs this year with low carb and my A1C went from 10 to 6.1 and I sleep like a baby.

    I also no longer have brain fog, so both my writing and reading output has improved exponentially.

    I know this isn’t a health blog, but you asked! lol

    • Thanks. Philip. And congratulations on getting your diabetes under excellent control! Weight loss of 40 lb. Wow. And an A1C of 6.1. That’s fantastic.

      You bring up an excellent point. If you are having major problems with insomnia, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor to look for medical causes.

      And regarding exercise, it’s important, but keep it at least several hours before sleep time. If you drink caffeine, try to avoid it for 8-12 hours before bedtime.

      Thanks, Philip!

  5. Fascinating post, Steve. I’ve read about biphasic sleep, but not at this level of detail, nor the experiment that recreated it.

    I have had insomnia in the past, usually related to stress or excessive caffeine. These days, too much black tea just leads to me sleeping less deeply. My wife does have insomnia and listens to the Sleep With Me podcast, where the host, Scooter, reads in a very boring style. She’s also listened to favorite novels like Pride and Prejudice myriad times. She wears a Sleep with Me headband that lets her control her earphones. It helps but she often wakes up for an hour or so around 4.

    • Thanks, Dale, for sharing your experience, and your wife’s. I had not heard of the Sleep With Me podcast or the headband. It sounds like it’s helping your wife.

      I’m not sure it would be a compliment (for the writer) to have one of their books read on the podcast.

      And I wonder why more research is not being done on using the biphasic sleep model as a means to help the 1/3 of our population with insomnia. Probably no money to be made by simply having people shuffle their awake and sleep hours.

      Thanks for your comments, and have a wonderful weekend!

  6. Thanks for this, Steve! I now have a perfectly reasonable explanation for my sleep patterns the last few years. It’s like taking a nap, waking refreshed, putting in a few hours of work, and around 3:00, feeling like I could sleep again. I thought it was another horrible age-related thing. I used to clean, but that disturbed my husband’s sleep, so now I close myself in my office and type away. It’s my new favorite and most productive time for writing.

    • Wow, Becky. You discovered biphasic sleep on your own. Now, we should tell writers, “Get up an hour early and write, UNLESS YOU HAVE INSOMNIA, in which case, get up when you wake up and write until you’re ready for “second sleep.”

      Fantastic! I may start writing (instead of reading) at my 3 a.m. “the watch” hours. We need a new club – Night Writers.


  7. Ol’ Ben was right. Early to bed, early to rise…

    Sooo…I try to avoid blue light an hour before bed. Read a book. Go to bed at midnight…EASTERN time! Ger up while it’s still dark.

    I used to wake up in the middle of the night and be up for a while. But I started taking a little melatonin and quercetin before bed and now sleep through.

    • Thanks for the great tips, Jim! You’ve done some research. I’m familiar with melatonin, but hadn’t heard of quercetin. The blue light avoidance is a good reminder.

      I’m glad those things are working for you.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  8. Interesting post, Steve!

    And, thank you, Joe, for your service. My Dad was an AA counselor/listener for veterans years ago. Such important work.

    Usually hit the rack at 9:00p and get up about 5:00-5:30A. Hardly ever sleep through the night because our GS, Hoka, likes to scan the fields around us between 2:00 and 4:00A to make sure the neighbors’ cows and cats are behaving themselves. She’s very persistent. 🙁 And once one of us gets up with her, it’s hard to get back to sleep. All that fresh air, you know. Then the worries of this life take over sometimes, for me, and sleep flees.

    But, I’m sleeping better these days because, of all things, I stopped reading right before bed. I use a Kindle to read most of the time and I saw somewhere that screens are bad for sleep. So, this read-before-bed junkie went through withdrawals and moved reading time to mid-afternoon, and it works for me. I usually fall asleep right away, until the Hoka factor kicks in.

    And if I can’t get back to sleep, moving to the sofa in the living room usually does the trick.

    Happy Friday all!

    • Thanks, Deb. And thanks for sharing your experience. I wonder if the kindle screen and sleep has something to do with the blue light issue. (White light actually has blue light).

      Sounds like Hoka is the one with the biphasic sleep pattern. Dale mentioned a head band and the Sleep With Me podcast his wife uses. Too bad you couldn’t put a headband on Hoka with a prerecorded message: “Okay, girl, you’ve checked the neighborhood, and all is well. It’s time to return home. You are getting sleepy, sleepier. Now put your head down and get some shut eye.”

      Happy Friday to you, too!

  9. What a fascinating post, Steve! And I particularly like the term “The Watch.” 🙂

    Although I have an occasional issue with not being able to fall asleep (probably thinking too much about plot lines or characters) or waking up in the middle of the night, I usually sleep well. My husband, on the other hand, has always been a problem sleeper. He frequently wakes around 3 a.m. Sometimes he goes to another room and walks, sometimes reads, etc. But after reading your post, I’m going to suggest he do housework. 🙂

    Seriously, many years ago we knew a couple where the wife was having sleeping issues and falling into clinical depression. She found the solution by doing exactly what you mention in your article: when she woke up in the middle of the night, she cleaned house for a couple of hours. Then she was able to sleep, and the depression lifted.

    • You had me laughing, Kay. I’m not going to let my wife read your comment. Housework? No, Frank! You’re an inventor, right? Those wakeful moments in the middle of the night are for solving “invention problems.” I don’t suppose, Kay, that you will allow your husband to read this post.

      Seriously, thanks for sharing your family’s issues with insomnia. It’s amazing how many people struggle with it.

      I knew, when I started writing this post, that the term “the watch” would get your attention. Since your books are centered around the theme of time, maybe you can give your MC a little insomnia, a time when she reviews her case and finds some solutions.

      And, no housework for your husband. The first rule of medicine (#1 in the Hippocratic Oath) “First, do no harm.”

      • If my comment mysteriously disappears from this post, I’ll know who to blame! 🙂

        Actually, I told Frank he should read your article. The bi-phasic sleep pattern is very interesting. But no matter what you say, I’m sticking to the housework solution. Physical exertion is good for the soul.

        • I concede. (I was going to suggest that Frank start making a list of things you can do for him with all your new free time, but I won’t do that.)

  10. I am so early to rise, if I get up any earlier, it will be the same day. I’m also early to bed, so it works for me. But I recently started taking magnesium. Hu-wee. I’ve always had vivid dreams, but these were wild rides. I read up on it and learned to take the magnesium in the morning. It’s supposed to help with sleep but those dreams were exhausting. I am not biphasic. Once I’m up. I’m UP. If I sleep more than about 6.5 hours, I’m miserable. Feel slugged. I do better slightly deprived that with too much.

    • Thanks, Lausanne, for sharing your experience. Everyone is different. That magnesium is interesting. I wonder if it could be used to help discover some truly unexpected plot twists. Doesn’t sound like you would want to take it every night.

      I envy your ability to get by with only 6.5 hours of sleep. Have a wonderful weekend.

      • It amazes me that we are able to surprise ourselves with our dreams. How can we throw plot twists at our own brains? And yet, it happens.

        • It seems that the brain sometimes takes all the pieces we’ve worked with, and then scrambles them in a random pattern we never thought of. Another way to put together the puzzle.

        • I haven’t but I hear it can give wild dreams too. I don’t feel the need for more sleep generally. I would definitely try melatonin in that case. It worked well for my parents when they needed it.

  11. Like Tenirax, I normally prefer to greet the dawn only after it’s well to the west of me. When working on a book, i’m often up until 2 ack emma. About that time one night, while working on my WWII thriller, I figured out who the 4th passenger was in Hitler’s Mercedes cabriolet for the trip to Nuremberg, September 18, 1931. I was so excited at solving an 80 year old murder mystery, I didn’t sleep until after four a.m.

    I ordinarily sleep well enough to slide out from under the covers, give them a tug, and the bed is made. Other mornings, the bed looks like a large tossed salad.

    • Thanks for telling us about your sleep patterns, JG. We haven’t heard from them this morning, but I bet there are many creatives who keep similar hours. (I guess it’s too early.) Very interesting.

      And I like your description of your sleep compared to the appearance of the bed. Creative indeed!

      Thanks for always adding to the discussion.


    I used to be a night person. I worked from 4:00PM-2:00AM. Waking up at 10:00 was normal. Realizing there was more traffic on the way home because I was sharing the road with the early risers a little disturbing.

    I became a morning person. Don’t ask me why. Now I wake up at 5:00 most days. But also most days I go to bed around 9:00 PM, wake up at 3:00 and then go back to sleep. I try reading but my vision just doesn’t do what it should.

    But it fits.

    • Very interesting, Alan. Your sleep pattern fits the biphasic model. Waking around 3 a.m. seems to be the most common answer we’re hearing today. If you find something that helps you get back to sleep sooner, let us know. There seems to be many of us.

      Thanks for helping to confirm that there may be something to this theory. And have a good weekend!

  13. Waking in the middle of the night is extremely common for seniors. My mom and most her friends did, and now I often do it. In my case, I need to take an allergy pill so I can breath then go right back to sleep when I can.

    • Thanks, Marilynn, for pointing out that insomnia is more of a problem as we get older. And, many of the over-the-counter “sleeping pills” are antihistamines (allergy pills). So that allergy pill is doing double duty. If you take them everyday, after about 3 months they may not work as well. If you stay away from them for about 2 weeks, they work again. Some people use two pills, taking one for three months, then the other, and so forth.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  14. Fascinating, Steve! Like others, it’s not unusual for me to wake at 3 a.m., ready to seize the day. I love to write in the early morning hours. Break to watch the sunrise. After which, I’ll do my morning routine (feed animals, inside and out, chat with the hubby, etc), then back to work. Never will I crawl back into bed. Once I’m up, I’m up for the day. My ideal time to wake is between 4-5 a.m.

    • Wow, Sue, you are an early riser. No wonder you get so much done. What time do you go to bed?

      I knew, when I was contemplating using this subject, that with your interest in brain physiology, you would be interested. And I bet you will turn up some more research to tie this all together.

      When you discover how we can double our writing output, share the secret.

      Have a great weekend!

  15. Very interesting–we’re on the same wavelength, Steve, as I wrote an article about this last year. I didn’t realize this “double sleep” practice went back so far though. My article was based on a similar practice in the Victorian age.

    I used to sleep like a rock–falling asleep easily and staying asleep until my alarm went off. How times have changed!

    Now, I frequently wake at 2 or 3 and am up at least a couple of hours before I fall back to sleep. I’ve tried many different natural remedies/supplements/medicine with varying degrees of success. Having a snack and some almond milk usually helps, as does reading and letting myself get cold.

    Unfortunately, most nights I think “This time, I’m going to fall back asleep quickly,” so lay there for about 45 minutes to an hour before giving up and getting out of bed. I wish I was more productive and accepting…instead, I feel grumpy and frustrated the nights this happens.

    Interested in trying to write during this time. I’d assumed it would be too stimulating (like Jim, I try to stay away from screens near bedtime) but I’ll give it a go. Maybe it’ll increase my book production by leaps and bounds! 🙂

    Thanks for the great article. I enjoyed it (and everyone’s comments).

    • Thanks, J.P., for your interesting and informative comments. I will look for your article on the subject. Sounds interesting.

      It is sad that this becomes a problem as we get older, and probably becomes more difficult to “treat.” I, too, usually think the “watch” will pass and wait 30 minutes to an hour before giving up and drinking my milk and reading. I’m fascinated with the blue light issue. What we need is orange light (opposite blue on the color wheel) on our readers or our computer screens. Or at least a light that doesn’t contain blue (?warm lights?). I wonder if we could rig a light with a color filter.

      I agree that it is worth experimenting with writing during “the watch.” Good luck with your book production. If you discover any other tricks that work, let us know.

      Thanks for stopping by, and have a great weekend.

      • Thanks, Steve. Rather than lay there unproductively fretting about how I can’t fall back asleep, I’ll instead repeat after you–“Drink your milk” and see if that works. 🙂

  16. This is really fascinating, Steve. Thanks for the info.

    My sleep pattern changed about 10 years ago when I had both knees replaced. Woke up around 2-3 a.m. b/c I had to get up and move due to stiffness/pain.

    Then I guess my body got into that habit. I’m definitely on The Watch schedule.

    Since many of us at TKZ share The Watch schedule, how about zoom critique meetings in the middle of the night? Except different time zones would mess us up. Oh well.

    • Thanks for your comments, Debbie. Sorry for my slow response.

      That’s interesting how your sleep pattern changed about 10 years ago. Mine changed about 4-5 years ago. When I look back, I realize we now have less light and noise from the road and nearby buildings, living back in a secluded setting. And, I guess, the few extra years may have something to do with it, too.

      Those zombie zoom meetings could be really interesting, with all of us finally falling to sleep and hanging our heads, snoring. Someone would find that for sure and post it on SM. “Zombie Writers’ Meeting.” As long as we’re not drooling.

      Have a great weekend!

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