Everything You Need To Know About Baby Sleep Cycles

It goes without saying, but your baby’s sleep needs are quite different to those of an adult. Everyone’s sleep needs differ, but age and development stage are among the many variables that determine our sleep needs as human beings. Join us as we take a closer look at your baby’s sleep patterns in more detail.

How much will my baby sleep?

Your baby is capable of sleeping up to 16 hours over the course of 24 hours. Now, this won’t happen in one consecutive stretch, as your little one will need to wake for feeds, and certainly during their first 3 months, their cycle will look like sporadic sleep-wake periods throughout the day and night. The length of these are all dependent on the baby, but often look like a couple of hours a go during the day, and a few more than that at night.


What exactly is a sleep cycle?

A sleep cycle is the term used to describe the natural internal process we all have, otherwise known as our circadian rhythm, that enables us to sleep and wake at routine intervals.

Newborn babies spend approximately 50% of their time asleep in REM, and experience only two sleep stages: REM and non-rapid eye movement sleep.

As newborns can sleep up to 18 hours per day, this means they typically experience up to nine hours of REM every 24 hours. As babies grow, they gradually spend less time in the REM stage of sleep, and begin to adapt to the same sleep stages as adults.

Our sleep cycles can be distinguished by the four different stages of sleep, which also apply to babies from around 3 months onwards.

Stage 1

This is the lightest stage of sleep, just as we begin to doze off. In your baby, this might look like startled movements and kicks, eyes moving beneath their lids, and irregular breathing or gurgling for a few minutes. Whilst the instinct for many may be to comfort or soothe, it’s important to simply observe. Notice what this stage looks like, familiarise yourself with your baby’s natural sleep cues in order to avoid rousing them as they nod off.

Stage 2

Following the initial fidget of the first stage, your baby will transition into a more mellow state. This stage signals a drop in temperature and a drop in heart rate, as the eyes stop moving and brain activity begins to slow. This new pattern is punctuated by short bursts of activity that help deepen the state of rest, meaning your baby is less likely to be woken by external stimuli.

Stage 3

In this stage, muscles begin to relax and breathing slows. Stage 3 is when the deepest sleep occurs, and is thought to be the most restorative stage of sleep for the immune system, growth and recovery.


REM Sleep

The fourth and final stage, REM makes up roughly 20% of adult sleep. This is the stage during which our brain is at its most active, and when we’re most likely to dream.

The REM stage of sleep is thought to be fundamental to creativity, memory and learning. This is why newborns and infants in particular spend so much of their time sleeping in the REM stage, as it's also thought to play a vital role in brain development.

Recognising sleep regressions

As your baby grows, they may find it more difficult to settle as they learn to crawl, and develop an awareness of people and things that exist out of their sight. This is why they might begin crying out for you more often, or develop separation anxiety. This is all quite natural, as your baby is beginning to understand the world around them more.

This challenging period is often referred to as the 4 month sleep regression, though it doesn’t always happen at exactly 4 months for every baby. Typically, the change occurs between 3 and 5 months, as your little one’s sleep cycle transitions to more closely match that of an adult, extending to 90 minutes. So, technically speaking it’s not a regression at all, more like a progression. Though, this distinction may be of little comfort to parents running on very little sleep!

Your baby’s sleep pattern may be much more erratic at this time as they adjust, so expect them to wake more frequently as they learn how to adapt.


Understanding your baby’s sleep

A better understanding of your baby’s sleep cycles and patterns can help you better support them as they adjust. This can mean changing their sleep environment to meet their needs. Just like adults, the older they get, the more their sleep environment will impact the quality of their sleep.

Make sure their sleep space is dark and quiet, with the exception of white noise sleep aids to encourage relaxation. The ideal room temperature for your baby to sleep in sits between 16-20 degrees celsius. Layer their sleepwear as appropriate, or use baby sleeping bags in varying togs to help regulate their temperature as they rest.

Allow time for frequent naps throughout the day to support their night-time sleep, and consider implementing a regular bedtime routine to help them wind down beforehand. This can include a bath, baby massage, and gently changing them into their sleepwear as lullabies or white noise play gently in the background for added ambience.

This way, your baby can start developing sleep associations that will support them in dozing off into a restful night’s sleep.

To learn more about how to support your baby’s sleep, be sure to check out some of our other blogs on our Sleep Centre, and follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more expert content and advice.

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