Hush little baby, don’t you cry. If you’ve ever wondered why everyone who has a baby seems obsessed with talking about sleep, you’re probably still an expectant mum! Trust us, anyone who has had a baby or cared for someone else’s will know that getting your baby to sleep can be easy one month, impossible the next, and a whole range of everything else in between. It may help to know, however, that whilst it may seem like witchcraft a lot of the time, there’s actually a good scientific explanation for some of these changeable sleep patterns, and the answer is: sleep cycles.
What is a sleep cycle?
The first thing you need to know is that, even as adults, there’s no such thing as just being asleep. Throughout the night we progress through a range of different stages of sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, there are four different sleep stages:
Stage 1: N1 or “light sleep” which is basically just dozing.
Stage 2: N2. This is a slightly deeper stage, where you are relaxed and your brain activity, heart and breathing rates slow.
Stage 3: N3, “deep sleep” or “slow-wave sleep”. This is the restorative portion of your sleep where your body and brain work on recovery and growth
Stage 4: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep. This is the stage of sleep where your brain is most active. If you’ve ever woken up and remembered a dream, you were probably woken during a REM cycle.
As an adult, you will cycle through these stages throughout the night. Most adults go through the four stages around 4-6 times over the course of a full night of sleep. For children, this is a little different, and for babies, it’s a whole new level of weirdness.
Just like everything else in the first 12 months of their lives, babies pretty much have to learn how to sleep properly!
Newborn sleep to six weeks old
When your baby is born, they have absolutely no idea what daytime and nighttime mean – they just sleep on and off as it suits them. Over the course of a 24-hour period, you can expect your newborn to sleep for around 12-16 hours. The bad news for you is that they most certainly don’t do this all in one block.
Day/night confusion is also a real thing for some babies. This is because most babies are actually more active at night when they’re in the womb. The motion of your body during the day literally rocked them to sleep, then at night when you’re at rest it becomes party time! This is clearly not something you want to establish as a long-term trend, so it’s important from birth to expose them to plenty of natural light during the day and keep things dark during the night. This encourages their little bodies to start learning the difference between day and night.
At this age, your little one’s brain only knows how to cycle through active sleep and quiet sleep. Anyone who has had a newborn in their room will know that they are noisy sleepers, often grunting, crying out or snuffling in the active phase of their sleep. Their sleep cycles also usually only last for around 20-50 minutes. So if you’re feeling like you’re putting your baby down, only for them to be awake again almost straight away, you’re not far wrong. They also will sleep pretty much anywhere, and through anything – half their luck!
Don’t forget that they’ll also want to feed on average around 8 to 12 times per day, so this is also going to interfere with getting a full night of rest. Even at this age though it’s worthwhile giving them a few minutes each time they wake. Often by instantly rushing to their side each time they make a noise, we actually don’t give them a chance to go back to sleep when they otherwise would have on their own.
You most definitely cannot spoil a baby too much, so don’t be afraid to get in all those sleepy newborn snuggles while you can. In saying that, if you’re comfortable, it never hurts to start trying to introducing a few self-soothing techniques like having a regular bedtime routine, and putting your baby down while drowsy but awake.
Sleep training isn’t for everyone, but a few small tricks learnt early on can make things much easier for you as your baby gets older.
6 weeks old to approximately 4 months old
Many parents often find this age to be a bit of a welcome reprieve from the tyranny of the newborn days. At this age, your baby should have begun to develop a clearer day-night pattern or circadian rhythm. This is because by around 3 months old your baby should be independently producing the hormone melatonin. This is the hormone that helps your body establish a regular daily rhythm and, up until now, your baby was relying on you to provide this to them. You should have also developed a clear feeding routine, either with well-established breastfeeding, or formula feeding. Either way, a well-fed baby, is a happy baby, and happy babies tend to sleep well!
You may not be getting any longer, more consolidated naps during the day, as catnapping is still very normal, but you may find that your bub is giving you long stretches of around five hours overnight. The wake-ups they do have overnight should also be quite brief – perhaps just a quick feed and back to sleep.
Enter the dreaded 4-month sleep regression
The very unfortunate news is that the newfound bliss that you may be experiencing may be somewhat short-lived. At anywhere from three months to five months old, your baby is going to go through what’s known as the 4-month sleep regression.
If your little one is suddenly awake every couple of hours through the night at this age, you’re not alone. According to the Baby Sleep Site, the most helpful thing to think of is probably that this isn’t really a regression as such – it’s actually a very important developmental milestone.
Congratulations, your baby is growing into its adult sleep cycles.
What this means for you now is that your little one has more periods of cycling through the lighter and deeper sleep cycles over the course of a night. While their brains learn to deal with this change in sleep patterns, you’ll likely find that each time they transition into a lighter sleep cycle, they’ll wake up, which they might not be happy about. And you’re probably going to need to help them get back to sleep. Sorry!
Some babies get through this stage without too much fuss, whereas others really struggle. It can be a long, very difficult phase for many parents. Tired cranky babies are never fun and, when you’re tired and cranky yourself, it can seem very grim indeed. The good news is once you come out the other end of this one, you should be coming back into some (slightly) easier times. For a little while at least!
5 months to approximately 8 months
Yay Mumma, you’ve survived having a newborn and weathered the four-month sleep regression. As your baby approaches the age of 6 months, you should find that they are now sleeping more at night, and being much more alert during the day. With this newfound alertness, they’ll also do cheeky things like learning ways to keep themselves awake. And let’s be fair, there’s so much to see, learn and do in this new bright world, you’d want to do the same! At this age, Raising Children suggests being mindful of overstimulation, the effect that learning a new skill (like crawling) can have, and the impact of separation anxiety. Any and all of these things can influence how well your little one is sleeping.
Some angelic little ones may automatically start to sleep through the night from about 6 months old. But don’t be surprised if your baby is still waking for a feed at this age. As they push towards the 8-month-old mark, and solid food is becoming a well-established part of their diet, you may like to consider night weaning. This is a very personal choice, some mothers love those late-night cuddles, whereas others just want their space back at night – as long as your baby is thriving and gaining weight the choice is ultimately up to you!
If you’re wondering about some downtime during daylight hours (for both you and bub), you can expect that your baby will need around 3.5 hours of naps over the course of the day. Generally, this is taken over three naps at this age, but if you’re finding your little one is doing more or less, this is still very normal. As you approach your baby turning eight months old, you might like to consider looking at your baby’s awake times, sometimes referred to as awake windows, and establishing a regular nap routine.
8 months to 1 year old
Ok, so we hate to be the bearers of bad news BUT there’s another regression coming your way. Hello, 8- 10 month sleep regression! At around eight months your little one is going through an absolute barrage of new developmental milestones, both physical and cognitive. Separation anxiety can also peak at this age meaning that the idea of bedtime is absolutely horrific to your little one until they fall asleep of course. To top things off their sleep needs change again at this age.
The lead up to your baby’s first birthday is usually where you can really start to see a clear two-sleep-per-day nap schedule establishing itself. So yup, there’s a lot going on here. The good news is, unlike the four-month regression, this tends to be over a lot quicker. If you stick to whatever routines you and your baby are used to, you’ll likely come out the other side of things relatively easily.
As your baby approaches toddlerhood and their big first birthday, their sleep cycles begin to shift once more. By one, they need much less total sleep per day, averaging 11-14 hours over a 24-hour period. Their newfound independence will no doubt cause a few more hiccups for you in the months to come, but one thing that you can rest assured on now is that these stages are all temporary and usually developmental.
Your little one’s sleep cycles are now fully established and, unless medically advised otherwise, you don’t need to offer feeds overnight. At the end of the first year, you really should be starting to see a move towards solid nighttime sleep, although we won’t promise 100% consistency just yet!
It’s really important to note that, as with all things baby-related, each child will do things their own way – and so will you as a parent. There are lots of brilliant resources available to assist you and your baby to get the rest you need. Sleep is very important for your child’s development, and for your own health and wellbeing, so if you feel like it is becoming a real issue for you and your family, you should never hesitate to reach out to your doctor or midwife.
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