Whoever first used the phrase, “sleeps like a baby” must mean someone who woke up all the time screaming. If there’s one thing that surprises new parents, it’s baby sleep. Well, actually, the apparent lack of it. Babies actually sleep a lot, but sometimes it feels like they never close their sweet little eyes. Let’s decode baby sleep (and help you get a bit more!)
How is baby and adult sleep different?
Babies diet sleep: a little at a time and often. They’ll rack up 8-18 hours in a 24 hour period — that’s a wide range because all babies are different. Babies spend the bulk of their time asleep in active or REM sleep, and they wake easily. They also don’t really have a circadian rhythm yet, where the presence and absence of light help to stimulate melatonin and cortisol release.
That means they wake and sleep at more or less the same rate throughout the day and night. For parents, that looks like reasonably long day naps and torturously short night stretches. Mature or adult sleep looks the way we expect it to: awake during the day, sleep for 7 to 9 hours at night, ideally.
Newborn sleep patterns: 0-3 months
For the first couple of weeks, babies are often sleepy waking only to feed. Excessive sleepiness, however (not waking to feed for more than 4 hours during the day) can be an indication of jaundice. From about 3 weeks old, they start to spend more time awake at each waking, and gradually sleep less and less.
Babies have very tiny stomachs and milk is digested quickly. Because of this, babies must wake to feed frequently throughout the night. They’re also small and vulnerable, so nature equipped them with a powerful cry and light sleep so that they could alert the adults around them to their presence (and not get left behind sleeping quietly).
Baby sleep patterns: 3-6 months
As yet, you may have exhaustedly noticed that there isn’t much of a pattern to be found. Unless you count erratic naps and frequent night wake-ups a pattern. But between 3-6 months, many babies start to settle into a better circadian rhythm.
You can help them do so by being consistent. Involved them in daily activities and expose them to a good amount of natural sunlight during the day. At night, don’t switch on too many lights and keep night wake-ups calm and sleepy. Your baby will still probably be waking up to feed a lot at night, and that’s completely normal.
Baby sleep patterns: 6-12 months
Everyone tells you that it gets easier around 6 months because that’s when most babies have grown enough that they can eat enough to keep their tummies fuller for longer. But, it’s also the time when babies start learning to crawl and pull themselves up, so the fuller tummy is balanced by the need to practice all these interesting new skills.
Some babies may be sleeping through the night or waking up just once by between 6-12 months old, whereas other babies may still wake up frequently. What you end up with will depend on your baby.
Baby sleep cycles
Now we’ve looked at what’s normal, we’ll look at why it is that way. Baby sleep cycles are shorter than adults — 40-55 minutes, as opposed to 90-100 minutes per cycle. Babies also spend up to 75% of their sleep in the baby version of REM sleep, called active sleep. Adults cycle through light, deep, then REM sleep within a cycle, and repeat the cycles throughout the night.
For babies, deep sleep might look more restful, because it lacks all the movement and startling awake but it is potentially more dangerous. Deep sleep is characterised by deeper, slower breathing and its hard to wake up from. For a baby, that can be dangerous if their breathing falls too low and they aren’t getting enough oxygen. That’s why it happens so much less for babies.
We are all also more likely to wake up during REM sleep and between sleep cycles. Adults have learned to link sleep cycles, remaining more or less asleep throughout several each night. Babies are more likely to be stimulated awake at the end of a sleep cycle (45-55 minutes after falling asleep) especially if they are hungry.
Babies need to sleep far more than adults do, and more frequently. Newborns will nap every few hours, sometimes being awake just 45 minutes before needing to sleep again. They nap like they eat, little and often.
From about 3 months, they’ll be awake more during the day, napping about 3 times throughout the day. If possible, try to ensure that your baby doesn’t sleep too much during the day — a 6-hour nap might feel good at the time, but it’s ruinous at bedtime — but also remember that for babies, sleep often begets sleep. An overtired baby is one who will stay awake and fuss rather than just go to sleep.
At about 6 months, babies start to sleep more like adults — and drop a nap, going down to 2 per day. This nap should be about 1-2 hours. More than that will start to steal nighttime sleep, so again, be wary of the long day nap.
When will I sleep again?
When you’re in the throes of newborn life, it can feel as though this period of half-caught catnaps will last forever. But you emerge from it surprisingly fast, and before you know it your baby is one! One important thing to remember is this: sleeping through the night is not an indication of a good baby or a good mother.
Babies sleep the way they do to protect themselves and thrive. They will sleep through the night when their bodies and brains are ready for it. Understanding baby sleep and the reasons behind it can help to get you through this tiring time. And we promise you will sleep again.
- Sleep patterns for babies: https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au/sleep-patterns-for-babies
- Newborn sleep patterns: A survival guide for the science-minded parent: https://www.parentingscience.com/newborn-sleep.html
- Baby sleep basics: Birth to 3 months: https://www.babycenter.com/0_baby-sleep-basics-birth-to-3-months_7654.bc
- Sleep Patterns For A Baby Ages 4-12 Months: https://www.happyfamilyorganics.com/learning-center/baby/sleep-patterns-for-a-baby-ages-4-12-months/