Bedtimes and bedtime rituals have changed over the years. People today sleep in different ways and different amounts than our ancestors did. They also have different bedtime stories.
You may have fond memories of hearing Goodnight Moon or other favorite books before being tucked in. Or perhaps someone told you a story that they knew from their own childhood. If so, you’re part of a long tradition. Bedtime stories have been read and told to children for hundreds of years. The stories from long ago, however, are not the kind you heard.
Many children’s stories of the 1800s would be shocking today. Bad things happened, like sickness and violence. Often characters died. It might be hard to go to sleep after hearing the story of a wild animal killing an innocent pet.
You’ve probably begged to stay up “just a few minutes more.” But doctors say we should get at least eight to nine hours of sleep a night. Around age 18, we can start to get by with a little less.
A study of ancient societies found that hunter-gatherers went to sleep not at sundown when it got dark. Instead, they started their sleep about three and a half hours after sundown. They slept less than seven hours a night and took no naps. Today, we would think that was too little sleep, but many people have similar sleep schedules.
Once in bed, we sleep straight through, from night to morning. In the Middle Ages, people slept in two parts. They would sleep three or four hours, then wake up. This was called “firste sleep.” Then they would stay awake for two to three hours. Many would use the time for reading, thinking, and praying. Finally, they’d sleep another five or six hours.
Did you know that light affects sleep? In the times before electricity, there was plenty of darkness. Artificial light caused people to go to bed later and sleep longer. Today, the light of a phone or computer screen right before bed harms sleep. The blue and white light from gadgets tells our brains that it’s time to stay awake. Reading on a screen at night means it can take longer to fall asleep.
People who lived in the days of candlelight probably couldn’t imagine this problem.