Soldiers and Sleep: The Military’s Shifting Stance

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation


Views on shuteye among our armed forces are evolving for the better.

When it comes to sleep, the U.S. military is adopting a new attitude. Today’s law of the land includes commander-developed sleep plans to help soldiers perform to the best of their abilities, remain safe, and possibly avoid mental health issues down the road. In fact, the Army has implemented a plan called the Performance Triad—a focus on sleep, as well as physical fitness and proper nutrition—to "improve readiness and increase resilience through public health initiatives and leadership engagement."

Science is on the military’s side: Getting fewer than eight hours of sleep puts soldiers and their companions at the same risk as if they had a few beers before shooting a grenade launcher or driving a Bradley fighting vehicle. In fact, a lack of sleep likely contributed to both friendly fire incidents in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the navigational error that led to the 2003 capture of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch in Iraq.

Military investigators are beginning to admit that sleep deprivation is a deep-rooted part of soldier culture. In the past, the popular “four-hour rule” stipulated that troops working in high-tempo, operational environments could function on only four hours of sleep. Today, thankfully, more and more members of the military recognize that this simply isn’t the case: Working under any circumstances with only four hours of sleep will lead to poor performance and weakened cognitive abilities (aka the brain-based skills we need to carry out tasks).

Of course, implementing new sleep mandates won’t be without challenges, especially since 51 percent of active duty U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy personnel have obstructive sleep apnea and another 24 percent suffer from insomnia.

The old belief that sleeping for eight hours is a sign of weakness or cowardice is slowly changing, and troop leaders are encouraged to set a good example by taking care of their own sleep habits. If small changes can start to make ripple effects throughout the military, we may eventually see major benefits, like fewer mental health issues and fewer costly mistakes in combat.