Why children who don’t sleep through the night might have saved humanity (sort of)

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WE WERE HERE FIRST: Eric and Arthur keeping mummy and daddy’s bed warm for us. How thoughtful.

In terms of sleeping, I reckon my children were born a few millennia too late.

Picture the scene: It’s 50,000BC and you and your family are asleep in a cave. It’s the middle of the night and your campfire has almost burnt out. There’s a sabre-toothed tiger prowling around outside and it’s mighty hungry (I’ve no idea if sabre-toothed tigers were still around 50,000 years ago, but bear with me).

If my children were in that cave with you, they’d have heard the tiger from three miles away and woken you up to tell you all about it. They wouldn’t need to come and find you, because they’d have left their own bed and climbed into yours long before your campfire went out. They’d have been whining about needing the toilet or wanting something to eat hours before that big cat even got a whisker near your cosy cave. In short, they’d have saved your life.

Now imagine what would happen if you were sharing the cave with some of those children who go to sleep at 7pm and stay in their own bed for eight hours solid. You know, the kind of kids your friends seem to be blessed with – the ones that authors promise you’ll have if you buy their magic sleep book. These children can’t hear a mouse roll over a bramble in a distant field like mine can, let alone warn you about a predator in a nearby village. They’re too busy sleeping soundly, waiting for some stupid clock to light up and tells them it’s morning. Without my frequent night wakers getting up to warn you about that tiger, you’re basically toast.

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PREPPING FOR THE NIGHTWATCH: Eric and Arthur now realise if they wake us up we’ll put them back in their own beds. So, they sleep at the bottom of our bed in a bid to not wake us up.

This idea that humans are hardwired to wake up in the night to prevent them getting eaten up by bears and wolves and the like was made popular in the 1960s by Frederick Snyder. Snyder’s theory might not make you feel better if your children want to party in the early hours, but it should reassure you that they’re probably normal, albeit annoying.

Other studies point to the fact that, up until 200 or so years ago, it was perfectly commonplace to have two sleep shifts. So, our great great, great, great grandparents would likely hit the sack around dusk, snooze for a few hours, get up again to do whatever took their fancy, then return to bed for another leg of sleep.

Some cultures still do this in the form of a siesta, so why is there now a widespread expectation that we should be ploughing through the day on coffee so we can save all our sleep for ‘bedtime’? And why do we feel like we’ve failed if our children want the comfort of sleeping next to us, or aren’t hardwired to sleep until some baby sleep expert says it’s an acceptable time to wake up?

I don’t have the answer, but I do feel reassured that if a sabre-toothed tiger rocks up at our house in the middle of the night I have two children who will be jumping on my bed to let me know.

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