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Baby Sleep Patterns

Sleep is individual and is dependent on physical activity, general health and wellbeing and environmental factors. Therefore the required amount of sleep may vary from baby to baby and sleep to sleep. Be guided by your baby’s tired signs and behaviour.

5 mins to read Jan 7, 2019

Sleep occurs in cycles containing active (light sleep) and passive (deep sleep) phases. In the early days your baby may need encouragement to help them get to sleep and stay asleep. When your baby doesn’t get enough sleep, life can be challenging. Without enough sleep your baby may be:

  • Wingy
  • Unsettled
  • Irritable
  • Impatient
  • Jumpy
  • Throwing more tantrums with greater intensity
  • Clumsy
  • Over-active
  • Less able to concentrate

Sleep is individual and is dependent on physical activity, general health and wellbeing and environmental factors. Therefore the required amount of sleep may vary from baby to baby and sleep to sleep. Be guided by your baby’s tired signs and behaviour.

Most newborns go through the light and deep sleep cycles and may also wake up for a short duration. During this time your baby may be grizzly or may also fidget as they go between the sleep cycles.  These are not baby sleep problems – they are normal.

Baby Sleep Cycles

Babies sleep occurs in cycles of two phases – light or REM phase (the rapid eye movement phase) and the deep phase.

  1. The light phase is when your baby first falls asleep, and it can last a period of 10 to 20 minutes. During this time you may notice body movements, muscle twitches, and dreaming. This is not a sleep problem – it is normal active sleep.
  2. The deep phase is quiet, deep and restful. It’s believed that this deep sleep is when we heal and grow. The depth of this sleep is important and may impact on whether your baby continues to sleep well and how they react when they’re awake – happy or crying. Newborn sleep is different to adult sleep as your baby’s brain is still developing.

Sleep cycles are significant and do change continually for each age group. These changes and sleep patterns are important to be aware of, especially during the first year of life. Newborns tend to sleep for about 2-4 hours at a time and then wake for short periods, often for a feed. It is during the early hours of the morning that your baby tends to wake more easily as they move through the sleep cycles. Most babies may need to be soothed to help them go back to sleep but as they get older they become better at getting back to sleep on their own.  It is normal for your baby to wake – the issue that causes most baby sleep problems, is how to go back off to sleep.

Sleep cycles are age dependant and do vary between babies. In babies sleep cycles last about 30-50 minutes and gradually increase in length across childhood. Your baby may stir initially before getting into the deep sleep; this is a normal part of healthy sleeping.

Baby Sleep Problems

Sleep problems can arise when your baby wakes and is unable to or not encouraged to go back to sleep. If your baby develops sleeping patterns of only sleeping for one cycle at a time, it is commonly described as cat napping or power napping. At 3-6 months of age your baby tends to move to a sleep cycle of 20 to 50 minutes long, compared with 90 minutes for adults. This means that babies are light sleepers and have more brief awakenings than adults. With age, the amount of active sleep decreases and by 3 years 33% of sleep is active.

Much like adults, babies may also find it difficult to go back to sleep after an active REM phase if they are stressed or have poorly established sleep patterns.

  1. It can take roughly 15-20 minutes for a baby to fall asleep and may take longer if they are overtired. Before your baby falls asleep, there are often four stages they may pass through:
  2. The first stage of your newborn’s sleep pattern is crying or showing tired signs. This is one of the most important stages to identify and act on to promote the ease at which sleep occurs.
  3. The second stage of newborn sleep is the vacant stare. This can easily be identified but is often misread and regarded as your baby being wide eyed and awake. At this stage your baby is almost asleep.
  4. The third stage of newborn sleep is the drooping eyelids. Your baby often lets out a protest cry but will then stop. Your baby may need holding and comforting at this point or just a gentle rock in the cot.
  5. The fourth stage is a sleeping baby – your baby shuts their eyes and they stay shut.

There are many factors that contribute to your baby not developing good sleeping patterns. Be patient and calm and seek professional help if your baby won’t sleep – there can be a valid reason.

Baby Tired Signs

Recognising and acting on your baby’s tired cues can help them settle earlier and easier. When your baby won’t settle and becomes overtired, getting them to settle and fall asleep is often more difficult and may take longer than usual.

Learn to identify tired signs in your young baby:

  • Facial grimacing
  • Yawning
  • Hiccoughs – not the only cause
  • Wandering or cross-eyed – worse when tired
  • Breaking eye contact
  • Jerky limb movements
  • Clenched fists
  • Crying

Learn to identify tired signs in your older baby:

  • Rubbing eyes
  • Whinges and whines
  • Clingy
  • Refuses to feed or eat
  • Yawns
  • Fussing at the breast
  • Won’t play on their own

Once you have identified your baby’s tired signs and cues, help him settle and fall sleep. There are several things you can do to help your baby settle and sleep but it is important to understand that every baby may need different strategies and support – depends on personality, environment and comfort to name a few.

Is your baby night waking? Learn more about it.