Sleepiness following 6 h of sleep deprivation (SD) was evaluated with a rat multiple sleep latencies test (rMSLT), and the findings were compared to conventional polysomnographic measures of sleepiness. The 6 h of SD was produced by automated activity wheels, and was terminated at either the end of the light period or at the beginning of the dark period. The rMSLT consisted of 5 min wakefulness induced by sensory stimulation followed by 25 min of freedom to sleep. This procedure was repeated every 30 min for 3 h and was designed to minimize the amount of sleep lost due to the testing procedure. In separate rats, 6 h SD was followed by undisturbed recovery, allowing evaluation of conventional polysomnographic measures of sleepiness. Sleep onset latencies were reduced following SD, with recovery in the light (baseline = 8 min, 3 s versus post-SD = 1 min, 17 s) and dark period (baseline = 14 min, 17 s versus 7 min, 7 s). Sleep onset latencies were not altered by varying the duration criterion for the first sleep bout (i.e., sleep bout length criteria of 10, 20, 30, or 60 s were compared). Polysomnographic variables (non-rapid eye movement sleep episode duration, delta power, and number of awakenings) also provided reliable indirect measures of sleepiness, regardless of whether the recovery sleep occurred in the light or dark period. Evaluation of effect size indicated that the rMSLT was a strong measure of sleepiness, and was influenced by homeostatic, circadian, and illumination factors. The rMSLT provided a simple, objective, robust and direct measure of sleepiness that was as effective as conventional polysomnographic measures of sleepiness.