As a pediatrician, I find that there are few topics that parents want to discuss more than sleep. Parents worry about their own sleep deprivation when babies arrive. Later, they worry about their children’s. I almost never encounter patients who are convinced that they’re getting the recommended amount of sleep.

It’s harder than you might think to determine how much sleep an adult actually requires. Modern technology has significantly altered how and when we might naturally sleep. Electricity allows us to be productive long after the sun has gone down. Coffee and other stimulants allow us to wake up more quickly. Measuring “natural” levels of sleep would require us to return to a simpler time.

As part of a German science television show, five men and women volunteered to return to Stone Age conditions for eight weeks. They had no smartphones or Internet, no electricity or running water, no alarm clocks — or any clocks for that matter. Enterprising scientists took advantage of this to make some measurements.

Before the study, they went to sleep (median) about 20 minutes before midnight. Without interference from modern amenities, their bedtimes moved up about two hours. Before the experiment, they woke up (median) about 7 a.m. Under Stone Age conditions, they woke up about a half-hour earlier.

Counting the periods of awake time between going to sleep and waking up in the morning, they had been spending less than six hours asleep each night before the experiment, and without outside interference they slept about seven and a quarter hours a night. This might be the closest we’ll get to figuring out what a modern human body naturally requires.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary