How Polyphasic Sleep Works

By: Danny Bonvissuto

Parents of newborns often turn into polyphasic sleepers right alongside their babies, although this little one doesn't seem too interested in dozing.
Parents of newborns often turn into polyphasic sleepers right alongside their babies, although this little one doesn't seem too interested in dozing.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

At midnight, I woke to the sound of my baby crying, his wails blaring out of the monitor on my nightstand. As I stumbled to his room, the buzzer rang, which meant someone was downstairs trying to be let in. Wondering who in his or her right mind would want to visit parents of a newborn at midnight, I looked out the window but couldn't see anyone, figured it was a prank and ignored it.

At 3 a.m., I woke with a start, again to the sound of his cries. In the hallway, I ran into one of my two dogs, Monkey, who was crying and pacing, her nails click-click-clicking on the hardwood floors. As I wondered why, I heard a knock on my door, looked through the peephole and saw a police officer.

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"So someone is home," he said as I opened the door, squinting in the fluorescent hallway lights. "Do you know where your dog is?"

"My dogs are in here," I replied defensively.

"Are you sure about that?"

I wasn't sure about anything. I wasn't even sure I had clothes on when I opened the door, though thankfully I did. Since the birth of my son six months prior, I'd made the rough transition from a monophasic sleep schedule, sleeping in one large block overnight, to a polyphasic one, or dozing in small bouts multiple times in a 24-hour period. I was tired and fuzzy-headed all the time.

While the police officer radioed downstairs, my sleep-deprived brain struggled through a slow rewind of the evening: I remembered coming home from the vet, hauling a very tired baby, diaper bag, car seat and two 75-pound dogs up three flights of stairs and, I thought, into the apartment. I remembered getting the baby to bed, then collapsing on the couch with my husband and a frozen pizza, which I had no recollection of eating before I fell asleep. My husband woke me up to go to bed and then ...

"Hey lady? I've got your dog restrained downstairs. It was loose in the hallway. Your downstairs neighbors came home and it started barking at them through the front door. They tried to buzz and call you but you never answered, so they called us," he paused, then said with a smirk, "I've got to know: How do you not know if your own dog is in your apartment?"

Good question, but I wasn't about to explain polyphasic sleep deprivation to him while my bewildered dog waited downstairs. Rest assured, the answers can be found in the pages that follow.

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From the Beginning

Though it would make newborn parenting a lot easier -- and infinitely more enjoyable -- if babies slept overnight from the get-go, everyone actually starts out as polyphasic sleepers.

The brains of babies aren't fully developed and they need to eat frequently, so they spend the first few months sleeping multiple times a day. As the newborn brain develops, so does what Dr. Nate Watson, M.D. M.S., co-director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center and sleep medicine specialist, calls "sleep architecture." This includes circadian rhythm -- or the development of a body clock -- cues from light/dark cycles and the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep patterns. All of these things help babies become biphasic sleepers, or those who do the majority of their sleeping overnight, with one nap during the day, and eventually monophasic sleepers. But in the beginning, it's a big blur of diapers, feedings, days and nights, and parents often adjust their sleep schedules accordingly.

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But that's a temporary situation. There are no hard-and-fast numbers on the amount of true, full-time polyphasic sleepers (or polysleepers) in the U.S., but, according to Dr. Russell Rosenberg, chairman of the National Sleep Foundation, there are approximately 6 million night-shift workers who most likely sleep on a biphasic schedule, though some may nap frequently instead.

And they're not the only ones. You know how it is: Shortly after lunchtime, you get that sleepy feeling, no matter if you had a small salad or a triple stack burger separated by layers of bacon. In the medical community, they call that a dip in the circadian alerting signal, and in many countries in Europe, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, they call it time for a nap.

"Naps make a lot of sense from a physiological standpoint," Rosenberg says. "There's a drop in the core body temperature and a period of reduced alertness. Some cultures embrace it, but in the U.S. most people just get a cup of coffee and push through it."

If catching 40 winks relaxes and recharges the body, what's wrong with adopting a polyphasic sleep schedule? Wake up and smell the answers.

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Working Against Your System

Night bus driver Chitpinit Kaewchaluay checks his bus on Dec. 15, 2010, in London, England. Chitpinit will drive the night bus from midnight until 6 a.m.
Night bus driver Chitpinit Kaewchaluay checks his bus on Dec. 15, 2010, in London, England. Chitpinit will drive the night bus from midnight until 6 a.m.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Though babies and parents of newborns get the polyphasic sleep stamp of approval from the medical community, neither Dr. Watson nor Dr. Rosenberg sees it as a viable alternative to the monophasic sleep schedule.

"Your lifestyle is not more productive, and sleep is not better if you chop it up," Rosenberg says. "I would never recommend it to anybody, but circumstances may force an individual to do it.

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People have toyed with polyphasic sleep schedules for centuries. It's been theorized that historical figures including Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci were polysleepers, but the only documented case is that of Buckminster Fuller, an engineer, systems theorist and all-around Renaissance man born in the late 1800s who slept in a series of naps until the schedule conflicted too much with his work.

Extreme athletes who can't take the time to sleep for long periods while training or competing do it. Servicemen and women in various branches of the military -- working on submarines, fighting wars -- do it. And so do pilots, fishermen, nannies, medical residents, college students and shift workers in every field from factory work to the media.

But does it come naturally? Never.

"It was always a struggle to go to sleep during the day, even when I was bone tired," says Christy Brown, former morning executive producer at WSMV-TV in Nashville, Tenn., who worked from 10:30 p.m. until 8 a.m. "I tried melatonin, which never seemed to work, and over-the-counter aids left me too groggy when I woke up. Inevitably, I would only sleep about four hours before waking up and trying to get back to sleep again."

Tired just thinking about it? Sleep on this: Some people think a polyphasic sleep schedule is a good way to maximize their efficiency (and no, they're not zombies).

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The Life Hack: Uberman or Everyman?

Steve Fisher, security supervisor at London's Old Bailey courthouse, walks through The Grand Hall on Dec. 15, 2010. Fisher works from 7 p.m. to 7a.m. We're hoping he gets a big chunk of satisfying sleep during the day.
Steve Fisher, security supervisor at London's Old Bailey courthouse, walks through The Grand Hall on Dec. 15, 2010. Fisher works from 7 p.m. to 7a.m. We're hoping he gets a big chunk of satisfying sleep during the day.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Recently, polyphasic sleep has been nicknamed the "life hack," or a way to make our busy lives more efficient by sleeping less and doing more.

"We have an increasingly sleep-deprived society due to many things that compete for our time," says Dr. Watson, from the University of Washington. "From television and media to Facebook and smartphones, there's no shortage of things to do other than sleep. Some have gotten the notion that you can cheat your sleep need, and polysleeping is becoming a popular theory for getting less sleep and not paying the price for it."

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Wait ... there's no price?

"There's no substitute for regular sleep," Watson says. "No pill, no schedule that can provide the same benefit as getting the healthy amount of sleep a person needs, which is between seven and nine hours a night."

According to Watson, two of the most popular ways to polysleep are the Uberman schedule -- six 20-minute naps, or one nap every four hours in a 24-hour period -- and the Everyman variation, or one major sleep period, with an additional two to five 20-minute naps during the day.

So how efficient can you really be if you're sleeping while other people are awake and awake when most people are sleeping?

"It's a difficult schedule to sustain," Dr. Watson says. "On the Uberman schedule, you have to time your life so that every four hours you're in a situation where you can take a nap. It's tough to have social life. You're going to be awake a lot of times when no one else is. Most people just don't have that much control over their activities where they can schedule things so rigidly."

But let's just say you have no job requiring you to be somewhere or do something at a certain time. And no spouse or child's schedule to work around. And, for the sake of argument, let's imagine that in this world of gloriously unrestricted free time, you choose to make yourself a human sleep experiment. Grab a pillow and a blanket and keep reading to find out how to get started.

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Making the Switch to Polyphasic Sleep

Since polyphasic sleep isn't recommended in the medical community, it's not well-documented. It's not even helpful to insomniacs, who are discouraged from daytime napping in favor of attaining one uninterrupted block of overnight sleep. As a choice, there are no hard-and-fast rules to polyphasic sleeping, and a normal body is never going to cue you into it, so the best way to get started is to figure out a schedule that works for you and do your best to stick to it.

"The biggest challenge will be to wake up when the nap is supposed to be over," says Watson. "Work backward from monophasic to a biphasic pattern for a while, then switch to the Everyman phase where you're shortening your main phase at night and adding a nap during the day. Keep shortening the main phase and adding naps until you attain the schedule you're looking for."

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No matter how diligent you are, there's some human physiology you'll never be able to change, like your circadian rhythm and nighttime melatonin release. And, according to Watson, you'll always be sleep-deprived since short naps prevent the body from going through the necessary non-REM and REM cycles that monophasic sleep allows.

So let's see: You're sleep-deprived, you're working against your normal body clock and you're out of sync with the rest of society. Who else can you invite to the party? Stress hormones such as cortisol, which can trigger "obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and drastic changes in mood," Watson says.

So why would anyone choose to switch from a monophasic to polyphasic sleep schedule unless circumstances required it?

According to Watson, nothing but sheer irony: "One of the interesting things about sleep deprivation is that the more sleep-deprived a person is, the worse they become at judging their own sleepiness."

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Author's Note: How Polyphasic Sleep Works

I was more than a bit daunted at the prospect of writing about polyphasic sleep until I realized I had personal experience with the topic. The kind of experience where you walk into walls. Or can't remember your husband's middle name. Or lose a 75-pound dog in a hallway. Writing the article reminded me to be grateful for every second of glorious, unadulterated monophasic sleep I get now that my child is sleeping through the night. However, if the very act of writing this somehow jinxes that situation, I take it all back.

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  • Brown, Christy. Former morning executive producer at WSMV-TV in Nashville, Tennessee. Personal correspondence. Received April 12, 2012.
  • Dusik, Doug. PR coordinator, American Association of Sleep Medicine. Personal correspondence. Received April 19, 2012.
  • Rosenberg, Dr. Russell Ph.D. Chairman of the National Sleep Foundation. Personal interview. Conducted April 11, 2012.
  • Watson, Dr. Nate, MD MS, Co-director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center. Personal interview. Conducted April 12, 2012.

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