Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/July 1881/Physical Education VII




"Children, stinted in their sleep, are never wide-awake."—Pestalozzi.

THE vital processes of man, like those of all his fellow-creatures, are partly controlled by automatic tendencies. Some functions of our internal economy are too important to be trusted to the caprices of human volition; breathing, eating, drinking, and even love, are only semi-voluntary actions; and during a period varying from one fourth to two fifths of each solar day the conscious activity of the senses undergoes a complete suspense: the cerebral workshop is closed for repairs, and the abused or exhausted body commits its organism into the healing hands of Nature. Under favorable conditions eight hours of undisturbed sleep would almost suffice to counteract the physiological mischief of the sixteen waking hours. During sleep the organ of consciousness is at rest, and the energies of the system seem to be concentrated on the function of nutrition and the renewal of the vital energy in general; sleep promotes digestion, repairs the waste of the muscular tissue, favors the process of cutaneous excretion, and renews the vigor of the mental faculties.

The amount of sleep required by man is generally proportionate to the waste of vital strength, whether by muscular exertion, mental activity (or emotion), or by the process of rapid assimilation, as during the first years of growth and during the recovery from an exhausting disease. The weight of a new-born child increases more rapidly than that of a eupeptic adult, enjoying a liberal diet after a period of starvation, and, though an infant is incapable of forming abstract ideas, we need not doubt that the variety of new and bewildering impressions must overtask its little sensorium in a few hours. Nurslings should therefore be permitted to sleep to their full satisfaction; weakly babies, especially, need sleep more than food, and it is the safest plan never to disturb a child's slumber while the regularity of his breathing indicates the healthfulness of his repose; there is little danger of his "oversleeping" himself in a moderately warmed, well-ventilated room. Never mind about meal-times: hunger will awaken him at the right moment, or teach him to make up for lost time. Three or four nursings in the twenty-four hours are enough; Dr. C. E. Page, who has made the problem of infant diet his special study, believes that fifty per cent, of the enormous number of children dying under two years of age are killed by being coaxed to guzzle till they are hopelessly diseased with fatty degeneration.[1]

The healthfulness of village-children is partly due to the tranquillity of their slumber in the comfortable nooks of a quiet homestead, or in the shade of a leafy tree, while their parents are at work in a way rather incompatible with the habit of fondling the baby all night. In houses where there is plenty of room, the nursery and the infant's dormitory ought to be two separate apartments: the play-room can not be too sunny; for the bedroom a shady and sequestered location is, on the whole, preferable. Next to out-door exercise, silence and a subdued light are the best hypnotics. But under no circumstances should insomnia be overcome by cradling or narcotics. Stupefaction is not slumber. The lethargy induced by rocking and cradling is akin to the drowsy torpor of a sea-sick passenger, and the opium-doctor might as well benumb his patient by a whack on the head. The morbid sleeplessness of children may be owing to several causes which can be generally recognized by the symptoms of their modus operandi; impatient turning from side to side, as if in a vain attempt to obtain a much-needed repose, means that the room is too stuffy or too warm; long wakefulness, combined with squalling-fits and petulant movements, indicates acidity in the stomach (overfeeding, or too much "soothing-sirup")—let the little kicker exercise his muscle on the floor; in malignant cases, skip a meal or two, or give water instead of milk. After weathering an attack of croup, children often lie motionless on their backs with a peculiar glassy stare of their wide-open eyes. Leave them alone; instinct teaches them to assuage the distress of their lungs by slow and deep respirations; rest and a half-open window will do them more good than medicine.

Healthful infants—i. e., under rational management the great plurality—can soon be taught to transact their public business at seasonable hours, or at least to abstain from midnight serenades. If mothers would make it a rule to do all their nursing and fondling in the daytime, their little revivalists would soon learn to associate darkness with the idea of silence and slumber. Habit will do wonders in such things. Captain Barclay and several American pedestrians learned to take their half-hour naps as a traveler snatches a hasty lunch, and many old soldiers develop a faculty of going off to sleep, as it were, at the word of command, the moment their shoulders touch the guardhouse bunk. The two drowsiest years of my life I passed at an old style boarding-school, where teachers and pupils were limited to seven hours of sleep, after nine hours of study, besides written exercises and special recitations, and where sixty or seventy of us had to sleep in a large hall; and I do not believe that the last flickering of our five-minutes candle was ever witnessed by a pair of more than half-open eyes.

But that same faculty of sleeping and waking at short notice may be utilized for the purpose of taking little naps whenever opportunity offers—in the last half-hour of the noontide recess, or during the Buncombe interacts of a protracted session. The inhabitants of all intertropical countries make the time of repose a movable festival, and during the dog-days of our torrid summers it would clearly be the best plan to imitate their example. "Children must not sleep in the daytime," says a by-law of our time-dishonored Koran of domestic superstitions; and, not satisfied with keeping our little ones at school during the drowsy afternoons of the summer solstice, we increase their misery by stuffing them at the very noon of the hottest hours with a mass of greasy (i. e., heat-producing and soporific) food. An hour after the end of a long, sultry day comes the cool night-wind, heaven's own blessing for all who hunger and thirst after fresh air; but no, "Night air is injurious"; besides, Mrs. Grundy objects to promenades after dark, so the children are driven to their suffocating, unventilated bedrooms, not to sleep but to swelter, till toward midnight, when drowsiness subsides into a sort of lethargy which yields only to broad daylight, three or four hours after sunrise; "So much the better," says the fashionable mother, who has passed the night at an ice-cream ridotto, "and morning air isn't healthy, either; most dangerous to leave the house before the dew is off the grass."

Only the curse of pessimism, our woful distrust of our natural instincts, can explain such absurdities. The parched palate's petition for a cooling liquid is not plainer than the brain's craving for rest and slumber when a high temperature adds its somniferous tendency to the drowsy influence of a full meal. On warm summer days all Nature indulges in a noontide nap; I have walked through tropical forests that were as silent under the rays of a vertical sun as a Norwegian pine-grove in the dead of a polar night; nor would it be easy to name a single animal that does not appear sleepy after meals. At noon leaf-trees throw their densest shade; even butterflies seek the penetralia of the foliage, and lizards cling lazily to the dark side of the lower branches; every school-teacher knows that children feel the drowsy spell of the afternoon sun; why should they alone be hurt by yielding to its promptings? Either postpone the principal meal to the end of the day, or increase the noontide recess to at least three hours, so as to leave time for a digestive siesta.

In midsummer all mammals (squirrels, perhaps, excepted) become semi-nocturnal: deer and llamas pasture the moonlit mountain-meadows; bears, badgers, and the larger species of monkeys are wide-awake; buffaloes wander en masse to the next drinking-place; and the stepchildren of Nature, the starved lazzaroni of Southern Europe, forget their misery if they can procure a fiddle or a guitar. The moonlit streets of the Mexican cities swarm with merry children, but north of the Rio Grande not a decent lad is seen out-doors after sundown; Luna has to seek her Endymions in the tropics, though our summer nights are often as glorious as the noches serenas of southern Andalusia. And what would our hardy forefathers have said about our dread of the morning dew? How many thousands of hunters and soldiers have slept in the open fields, and how many times did we wade through the dew-drenched brambles of the Ardennes, my little brother and I, to see the sun rise, and breathe the mountain wind, at the only hour when the air is both fragrant and cool, inspiring thoughts which music can only awaken for a fleeting moment!—if such hours are mortiferous, there can not be a more agreeable way of ending what our latter-day epicures are pleased to call life.

What harm can there be in dividing our daily portion of sleep? Birds and beasts do it, the founders of the most ascetic orders of Spanish monks allowed it, and our summer months are certainly as warm as those of Southern Europe. People who are so anxious to improve the shining hours for business purposes had much better curtail the number of their meals; take a vote among the juvenile operatives of a cotton-factory, and ten to one that a large majority would gladly postpone, or even renounce, their dinner for the privilege of sleeping an hour or two between 1 and 3 p. m. A Belgian silk manufacturer, who had spent his own boyhood at the loom, told me that he could never find it in his heart to discharge a factory-child for dozing over its work.

Necessity may compel individuals to compromise such matters. If I had to work or teach all day, I would not eat a crumb between breakfast and supper, and pass the dinner-hour under a shade-tree; but parents who can afford to educate their children at home should give them either an all-summer vacation or a half-afternoon recess—let them rest from twelve till three, or sleep if they prefer; in the evening, do not send them to bed till they are really tired, and till the night-wind has revitalized the air of their bedrooms; but make them rise with the sun—if they are drowsy they will go to bed earlier the next evening. There is no danger of a child's—especially a boy's—oversleeping himself, unless the hardships of his waking hours are so intolerable that oblivion becomes a blessing; but it can do no harm to make the health-giving morning hour as attractive as possible: provide some out-door amusement, a prize foot-race, a butterfly-hunt, or gathering windfalls in the apple-orchard; if the desire for longer sleep can outweigh such inducements, there must be something wrong—plethorific diet, probably, or over-study. The requisite amount of sleep depends on temperament and occupation as well as on age; with children under ten, however, too much indulgence would be an error on the safer side: let them choose their allowance between eight and ten hours; in after-years, seven hours should be the minimum, nine the maximum for healthy children; sickly ones ought to have carte blanche, both as to quantum and time of repose; consumptives, especially, need all the rest they can get. Profound sleep in a cool, quiet retreat is Nature's own specific for all wasting diseases, a panacea without price and money.

Nothing can be more injudicious than to stint children in their sleep with a view of gaining a few hours for study. "That plan," says Pestalozzi, "defeats its own purpose, for such children are never wide-awake; you can keep them out of bed, but you can not prevent them from dozing with their eyes open. A wide-awake boy will learn more in one hour than a day-dreamer in ten."

Habitual deficiency of sleep will undermine the strongest constitution; headache, throbbing, and feverish heat are the precursors of graver evils, unless a temporary loss of mental power compels an armistice with outraged Nature. King Alfred, Spinoza, Kepler, Victor Alfieri, Madame de Staël, and Frederick Schiller killed themselves with restless study; Beethoven and Charles Dickens, too, probably prepaid the debt of Nature by their habit of fighting fatigue with strong coffee. Sleeplessness may lead to chronic hypochondria, and even to idiocy; without their long vigils, the monks of the Thebais and the fathers of the Alexandrian Church could hardly have written such stupendous nonsense. It is a curious fact that compulsory wakefulness combined with mental activity often induces a state of morbid insomnia, an absolute inability to obtain the sleep which it was at first so difficult to resist. In such cases, the only remedy is fresh air and a complete change of occupation. During sleep the brain is in a comparatively bloodless condition;[2] a hot head and throbbing temples are unfavorable to repose, and it has been suggested that insomnia might be counteracted by a hot foot-bath, chafing the arms and legs, or any similar operation that would divert the blood from the head toward the extremities, and thus tend to diminish the activity of the cerebral circulation. Listening to distant music or the ripple of a river-current has also a wonderful hypnotic effect, the repetition of monotonous sounds, or, indeed, of any sensorial impression, seems more favorable to repose than their entire absence. The philosopher Kant assures us that he could obtain sleep in a paroxysm of gout by resolutely fixing his attention on some abstruse ethical or mathematical problem, but remarks that the success of that method depends upon the laboriousness of the mental process; the mind, as it were, takes refuge in sleep as the alternative of drudging at a wearisome task. Robert Burton, too, gives a number of similar recipes, besides a list of wondrous medicinal compounds to be swallowed or inhaled ad horam somni, but in ordinary cases it is better to try the effects of out-door exercise, before resorting to dormouse-fat,[3] theological textbooks, or other desperate remedies.

Being naturally a sound and long sleeper has been ranked among the surest prognostics of a long life, and sleep after a wasting disease as the most certain symptom of recovery. Most brain-workers are subject to occasional fits of insomnia, but the faculty of sustaining health and vigor upon a very small allowance of sleep is generally a concomitant of mental inferiority, or at least inactivity. The most intelligent animals, dogs and monkeys, sleep the longest; stupid brutes merely stretch their legs, their inert brain requires no rest; a cow never sleeps in the proper sense of the word. Mirabeau, Goethe, and James Quin often slumbered for twelve or fourteen hours successively, while Leopold I, of Austria, and Charles IV, of Spain, the heartless and brainless bigots, could content themselves with five hours of sleep out of the twenty-four, and their prototype, the Emperor Justinian, often even with one.—(Gibbon's "Rome," vol. vii, p. 406.)

Heinrich Heine wonders why Jehovah did not square his account with our wicked forefathers by punishing them in their sleep, instead of compromising their innocent progeny. Dietetic sins often avenge themselves in that way; blutwurst, sauerkraut, or short-cakes with pork-fritters, generally result in apocalyptic visions, and an eel-pie for supper is a reliable receipt for a first-class nightmare. Vivid dreams, per se, however, are by no means a morbid symptom; on the contrary, the scenes of the slumber-drama are most lively and lifelike in the happiest years of childhood; and I remember a time when I longed for the bed-hour, in anticipation of a pleasant dream-land excursion. Children are apt to relate their trance adventures, and I would encourage the habit; dreams, as the elder Pliny already observes, may often afford a suggestive insight into the ethical condition of the mind; also into the condition of the stomach. Melodramatic incidents indicate the presence of irritating ingesta, and the least attempt at clairvoyance calls for out-door exercise and an aperient diet. A South-German feather-bed is a Trophonian cave; the difficulty of turning from side to side crowds the brain with alarming phantasms, and the excessive warmth of the thing itself is apt to affect the imagination. The best bed is, indeed, a hard, broad mattress, or a well-stuffed straw tick, and, for reasons I have stated in the chapter on "In-door Life" a woolen blanket over a linen bed-sheet is preferable to a quilt. Those who find it uncomfortable to sleep in an absolutely horizontal position should slightly raise the head-end of the bedstead rather than use a thick bolster. A thick pillow bends the head upon the breast, or keeps the neck in a position that aggravates the distress of respiratory difficulties. Woven-wire mattresses recommend themselves by their cleanliness and durability; their elastic qualities alone would hardly justify a great expense, though luxury has even devised an "hydrostatic bed," a trough of water with a tegument of caoutchouc. History records the name of the Sybarite who "cried aloud because a leaflet of his flower-mattress got crumpled"; and Chevalier Luckner, the Russian Lucullus, built himself an air-pillow bed on noiseless wheels, that could be turned by a hand-lever, in order to move the sleeping-car from or toward the stove, the aphelion and perihelion being determined by the state of the out-door atmosphere. Such chevaliers deserve the penance of Ezekiel (iv, 3-6), who had to lie three hundred and ninety days on his left side for the iniquity of the house of Israel, and forty days extra for the iniquity of the house of Judah. A weary head needs no air-cushions, with noiseless wheel-attachments; brakesmen take their intermittent naps on the hard caboose-bunk of a rumbling freight-train; and the log of the Royal Sovereign records that, during the heat of the battle of the Nile, some of the over-fatigued boys fell asleep upon the deck.

The habit of going to sleep at fixed hours can overcome the tortures of neuralgia, and some practical stoics have manifested a not less astonishing command over their mental emotions; Napoleon I slept soundly on the eve of the battle he knew to be his last chance, like Mohammed II before his last neck-or-nothing assault upon the ramparts of Constantinople. Army-life can acquaint a man with strange beds, as well as bedfellows. Skobeleff's troopers bad to sleep in dug-outs on the woodless ridges of the Balkan; and during Key's retreat from Moscow, the commander himself bad once to pass a night in a root-house, where a few rotten boards and a bundle of straw formed bis only protection against a raging snow-storm.

But "roughing it" teaches some useful lessons, and soldiers and hunters often learn by experience that sleep under such circumstances depends upon the possibility of getting the feet warm; rain in the face, or even a wet overcoat, is less anti-hypnotic than chilled toes. In a trapper's bivouac the sleepers generally lie in a circle around the camp-fire, with their feet toward the glowing embers, and the Swiss mountaineers use foot-sacks long socks of a felt-like stuff, and wide enough to leave room for a lot of dry leaves, besides two or three pairs of stockings. Both methods are practical applications of Dr. Caldwell's theory that a decrease of the cerebral blood-circulation has a somniferous influence; in other words, that sleep can be promoted by warming the extremities of the body, and thus diverting the blood from the head.

In-doors, summer often reverses the problem; in the dog-days, when the amount of bed clothing has to be reduced to a minimum, the main point is to cool the head by lowering the temperature of the bedroom. Open windows, a hard, smooth mattress, linen bed-sheets, and a light supper will generally answer the purpose; in the lower latitudes, George Combe recommends glazed brick floors, frequent sprinklings, and in very hot nights a tub with ice. And why not? The Turkish residents of Damascus pass the summer nights in the yeyirman or fountain-hall of their cool houses, and the garrison soldiers of San Juan d'Ulloa deem it a special privilege to sleep on the floating wharf, exposed to the spray and the fitful swell of the Gulf-tide.

In the West Indies and the Mississippi Valley, mosquito-bars are a sad necessity, but all sensible people should be glad that the French canopy-beds are going out of fashion. the French are right, though, in making children over ten years sleep alone; it is one of the rare instances of an etiquette law being supported by a valid reason. To those who can afford it. Dr. Franklin recommends even two beds per individual, and in sweltering summer nights it is certainly a blessing to be able to leave a hot bed for a cool one; in the large family guest chambers of a German hotel, sleepless travelers can thus change the beds like relay-horses. the builders of the old English country-seats seem to have made it a rule to have the houses face due south, with few or no windows on the north side, and in such buildings the east windows would make the best bedroom fronts, both on account of the evening shade and the monitory morning sun. In our Northwestern Territories, where the thermometer ranges from 90° above zero to 45° below, it would be no bad plan to vary the location of the bedchamber with the change of the season, but, as a general rule, the dormitory should be the coolest room in the house—i. e., the nearest to the north side, and the farthest from the kitchen.

  1. "The only wonder is that any infant lives sixty days from birth. Fed before birth but three times a day he is after birth subjected to ten or twenty meals in the twenty-four hours, until chronic dyspepsia or some acute disease interferes. . . . So far from admitting a possible error in advising three meals only, I am convinced that, for a hand fed baby especially, two would often be better than three." ("How to feed a Baby to make it healthy and happy," p. 55.)
  2. Dr. Caldwell records a case of a woman at Montpelier, who "had lost part of her skull (from disease), the brain and part of its membranes lying bare. When she was in a deep and sound sleep, the brain lay in the skull almost motionless; when she was dreaming, it became elevated; and, when she awoke, it became suffused with blood and seemed inclined to rise through the cranial aperture." ("Psychological Journal," vol. r, P-74.)
  3. "Anoint the soles of the feet with the fat of a dormouse, the teeth with ear-wax of a dog, swine's gall, oil of nunaphar, henbane," etc.—("Correctors of Accidents to procure Sleep," "Anatomy of Melancholy," p. 414.)