Would you be in trouble without your snooze button?

Heading back to work tomorrow? Already setting your alarm to go off at regular intervals before you wake up? Then this extract from our June release, Sleep Better by Professor Graham Law and Dr Shane Pascoe is for you!

The snooze button is a curiously problematic invention. The first snooze alarm clocks appeared in the 1950s. Lew Wallace, an American lawyer and author of the adventure tale Ben-Hur: A tale of the Christ (1880), is reported to have invented the snooze button, and presumably he thought it would be a great idea. However, it really goes against everything we know about sleep. As that statement may seem overly dramatic, it calls for an explanation.

Ask yourself: ‘Why do I need my snooze button?’ If you must wake at a certain time, then why not set your alarm for that time? It is because the snooze button gives you a different option. This option plays on two points: your love of a few minutes’ more shuteye and your needing to get up and not be late. It is common for people to think that if they don’t have a repeating alarm, then they will not get up.

The snooze button confuses the mind and body. You have been woken by an alarm, at which point the hormones in your body are being released to bring you to the point of being fully awake physically and mentally. This state of heightened alertness is important in an evolutionary sense in that historically we lived in a world where survival was paramount. When you tap the snooze mode, however, the body acts as if it is being allowed to return to a full sleep. You rest your head back on your pillow, curl up into your favourite sleep position. With this, your body resets all its hormones and prepares for sleep.

So what is the problem with this? The length of a standard sleep cycle is variable; it is different for different people and varies with age. Therefore it is difficult to be specific, but it is likely that a standard 10-minute snooze is too short for your body to feel rested again and ready to wake without that feeling of grogginess known as sleep inertia. This is while the mind makes the transition from sleeping to the fully awake mode. The amount of inertia experienced by people varies quite considerably, and probably leads to people regarding themselves as a ‘morning person’ (which is described as having low sleep inertia) or ‘not a morning person’. Indeed, some recent research from the USA found that some people are so groggy that they have what is called sleep drunkenness, a serious deficit of ability when you feel unable to deal with what the day throws at you.

Sleep scientists have become increasingly interested in looking at how these differences in people may affect their health. Whether you are a morning or an evening person is known as your chronotype, and this is relevant to the snooze button. Morning larks have very little sleep inertia and are the most likely to spring out of bed. Night owls will enjoy the snooze button because they do not want to leap out of bed but to stay a while longer. In the 1970s, sleep scientists coined the term ‘drockling’ to describe this, the gentle drifting in and out of sleep in the early morning. This is exactly what happens when you use your snooze button. You are drockling; the word’s ugliness describes fairly well what happens.

The more you drockle, the more confused your body feels: should it prepare for the day or prepare for a night’s rest? What you should do is set your alarm for when you need to get up. This may need to include some time to swing your legs over the side of the bed and become fully awake. You should do this every day. Eventually your body should get used to this routine. If you use a snooze button regularly, then you have trained yourself to rely on it, instead of getting up at the first alarm.

Top tips

1 Do you use a snooze button on a regular basis and feel you need those snoozes to prepare you for the shock of getting out of bed? Why not try without? My wife used to love her snooze button to get up for work, at what felt like an unnaturally early wake-up time for her. She invested in a light alarm clock, which has a light that gradually brightens up for 30 minutes before the alarm goes off. The light signals allow the body to wake up gradually with the light, so you are often awake or almost awake before the alarm goes off. All right, it does still have a snooze button, but she now doesn’t go back to sleep once the alarm goes off, yet can still enjoy some time in bed thinking about the day without the risk of falling asleep and being late for work!

2 If you feel really bad in the morning getting up with the alarm, you may not be getting enough total sleep. Try bringing your bedtime forward gradually until you reach a point at which you are able to feel awake when your alarm goes off.

9781847094575This is an extract from Sleep Better: The science and the myths by Professor Graham Law and Dr Shane Pascoe out this June.

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