Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"To sleep/Perchance to dream"

I love the drive from a client’s house to the hospital. I’m following my clients, watching the labouring woman’s hand reach up to the roof of the car during each contraction. For me, it’s an in-between time of quiet watchfulness, similar to that “out of time” feeling I remember while feeding a baby in the middle of the night.

Last night, we had a long drive from Surrey to Burnaby General. So, I turned on the radio to CBC Ideas and heard an amazing piece by Jeff Warren called "While You Were Out" about the changes in sleep patterns over the last three hundred years.

References to “first sleep” are present in Renaissance and pre-industrial writings. Only now are researchers discovering that our biological sleep pattern has two main cycles, “first sleep” and “second sleep,” with a two hour intermediary trance-like period, “the watch.”

After sunset, the family would head to the communal sleep space. There would be a quiet period of 1-2 hours rest in the dark, followed by “first sleep,” a deep rejuvenating state. This long wave sleep state would increase the levels of prolactin (ah, the breastfeeding hormone!) After 4-5 hours, people would enter an altered state of consciousness, induced by these high prolactin levels. Any breastfeeding mum knows the timeless trancelike effect produced by high prolactin levels - patient, waiting. In this period, people would traditionally pray, muse on the day’s events, or quietly make love, while listening to the natural sounds around them. Later, “second sleep” would come, full of REM sleep and dreams. They would all wake at sunrise.

This sounds so much like a typical night with a new baby. Hmmm... Rather than seeing the postpartum sleep pattern as unnatural, perhaps we should see this as our return to our natural biological state. Sleeping alone in a room devoid of sensory input seems to be an unnatural state for humans. Our North American need to mold our babies into beings who can sleep alone for long uninterrupted periods is, in fact, altering the delicate hormonal and chemical balance in our bodies.

So, have a quick read of the article, “The Cultural Biology of Sleep,” before delving into Carol Worthman’s research papers, which include “The Ecology of Human Sleep.” You may find some food for thought during “the watch.”

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