Sleeping Through The Ages: How Our Sleeping Habits Have Changed

Sleeping is a part of human nature. It’s something we’ve done since the dawn of time and, naturally, things have changed over the years. The history of sleep is vast and some parts of it are tricky to determine. However, there are aspects we can look at such as sleeping cycles among different time periods that can help us paint a much clearer picture of how our sleeping habits have changed.

If you’ve ever wondered how much our sleeping cycles have changed from prehistoric times, join us as we go through the evolution of sleep from early days of man to now.

The History of Sleep

In the years of the Romans, sleep was relatively misunderstood. It was only in 450 BC that a Greek physician managed to hypothesise that sleep was a temporary period of unconsciousness caused by lacking blood flow to the brain. Other similar theories emerged around this time, with some even believing that sleep was a side effect of a drop in bodily surface temperature.

In 162 AD another Greek physician, Galen of Pergamon, discovered that consciousness is controlled within the brain, not the heart. After which, little research went into understanding the role of sleep and the benefits it can bring, with most of humankind believing sleep to be a detoxifying process which was brought on by issues in the cardiovascular system.

Fast forward to modern times and a lot of these beliefs have been defunct. The 1900s saw the discovery of neurons underpinning the individual units of the nervous system and in 1903, the first sleeping pill (Barbital) was invented. The 1900s also saw the discovery of sleep cycles, leading to an increased amount of attention paid to REM (repetitive eye movement) sleep. 

How Have Sleeping Habits Changed?

With the scientific side of sleep research covered, it’s time to investigate historical sleeping habits:

The Stone Age

Not much is known about sleep before the stone age, which is why our journey of sleep knowledge begins at the very final division of the stone age under the neolithic era. Due to how precarious living conditions were at the time with meat-eating predators roaming free among humans, our neolithic ancestors rarely opted to stay out beyond nighttime. 

When it became dark, the natural decision was to go to sleep as there wasn’t much else to do. This is a common theme among these historical periods, with sleeping undertaken in brief periods of inactivity.

So, what did humans sleep on before beds? Building was a key skill at this time, with houses made from all sorts of materials found all over. This paved the way for prehistoric beds, with our ancestors using wood, straw, leaves, grass and animal skins to create a comfy surface to fall asleep.

The Middle Ages

The start of the Middle Ages saw humanity sleeping two hours after the late afternoon, lasting until midnight. At which point, many would wake up for a couple of hours and return to bed in the early hours of the morning. 

The tail end of the Middle Ages saw the development of streetlamps installed across Europe. By the end of this period, most European cities had some form of illumination to help guide travellers venturing out through the night. As more and more people began to experiment with their elongated sleeping plans, we also started to see changing sleep patterns emerging with some schedules starting to fall outside of the previously established two-stage process.

Beds also developed a lot through the Middle Ages, with them acting as somewhat of a status symbol. Low-income families slept on makeshift beds constructed from gathered materials such as bags of straw and flooring, whereas wealthy people slept on primitive mattresses filled with feathers on top of grandiose bed frames made from wood.

The 17th-18th Century

With bedrooms and furniture only just starting to take shape, the 17th century was a key time of development for softer mattresses filled with all sorts of materials. Amidst a pursuit of increased productivity, sleep started to become highly regulated with humans beginning to stick to routines that allowed them to carry out as much work as possible.

It was around this period that the industrial revolution began, which placed an even greater focus on efficiency when it came to working. This solidified humanity’s approach to scheduled sleep, with the goal being to avoid as much wasted time as possible. 

Electricity too became much more common during this period, which in turn opened a lot more opportunities for nighttime entertainment. Prior to this, these sorts of activities were reserved for the daytime as visibility was at its best. This, in addition to prior work commitments, meant that people were going to bed much later and feeling a lot worse in the daytime as a result. 

The 20th Century

Amidst the various scientific discoveries made around sleep in the 1900s, our approach to sleep changed quite substantially. It was the industrial revolution of years before that greatly inspired this, with a lot of humans feeling sleep-deprived from being overworked.

This was partly remedied by sleeping pills and sedatives, but their use is still met with scrutiny to this day. As far as sleeping habits go, there are similarities drawn from the 1900s that are still witnessed today, such as the monophasic sleep cycle. 

Read more: Beyond Monophasic Sleep: Can We Deviate From 8 Hours At Night?

Modern Times

Nowadays, we know a lot more about how sleep affects the body and have even pinpointed specific times at which we should be aiming to fall asleep. Compared to other periods in history, we sleep now more than we ever have, which allows us to fit our busy lives into the 12 hours that we have during the day. At the end of the day, we give our bodies the ability to recharge overnight before waking up refreshed and ready to tackle the day again.

We also have much more luxurious materials to work with, and devices that help us accomplish a full 8-hour sleep. Softer bedding, intelligent smartphone apps and wearable devices are now common parts of our sleeping routines, meaning our sleeping patterns of today are more comfortable and informed than ever before.

How Does Your Sleep Schedule Compare?

Well, there you have it. It’s clear to see that our sleeping patterns have changed drastically through the years. One thing we can agree on is that it’s important to make your bedroom as welcoming as possible. 

Is your sleep pattern or quality in trouble? Perhaps it’s time for a new mattress or bed frame. Browse through our varied bedroom furniture today and find something that’s both comfortable and easy on the eyes.

Chloe Baxter

Chloe Baxter

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