Understanding Infant Sleep: Cycles and Patterns Demystified

We all know how much we love sleep! Well this is an equally important requirement for babies as their growth and development truly depend on it. This is why all parents must understand the different sleep cycles of a baby. Sleep cycles need to be understood so that you are sure your baby is getting enough rest at every stage. The fact is that your well-being is closely linked to your infant’s sleep schedule. This is because only when your baby sleeps properly can you get adequate rest. Knowledge of baby sleep patterns helps in setting Infant sleep schedules and understanding infant sleep cycles. Your baby is strongly influenced by the environment, routine and daily activities have a strong influence on babies. A fixed routine helps your infant establish good sleep patterns.

Baby Sleep Duration at Every Stage

Baby sleep duration varies from day to day and will undergo more changes as they get older.

  • A newborn can seem like a lot of work to take care of, but shockingly they sleep 16-20 hours a day in the first 4 to 6 weeks. These hours gradually reduce to 14 to 17 hours. These blocks of time are equally divided between day and night and happen in 2 to 3 hour blocks for breastfed babies and 3 to 4 hour blocks for bottle-fed babies.
  • Babies between the age of 3 to 6 months can sleep for around 14 hours; out of which 8 to 9 are usually the baby only waking up for feeding. They may have 3 naps in the daytime lasting about 2 hours each.
  • Babies between the ages of 6 months to 1 year also sleep about 14 hours. Of this 8 to 9 hours without interruption will be at night if they are well-fed and with 2 or 3 naps during the day lasting from 30 minutes to 2 hours each.
  • Toddlers from age 1 will sleep about 12 to 14 hours with around 10 hours at night and 1 or 2 naps in the day, totalling around 2 to 3 hours.

It is important for all of us to remember that each baby is unique with their own preference, therefore, the numbers above can only serve as an approximate idea.

Infant Sleep Cycles

Sleep cycles broadly refer to patterns of wakefulness and sleep through a given time frame. It can also refer to Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-REM sleep which are 2 types of sleep in a single sequence. In REM, also known as active sleep, babies move around and make noises in their sleep. In non-REM or quiet sleep, babies have a deeper sleep. Babies have sleep cycles that differ from adults. Their sleep is for shorter stretches and is more like a nap. This is because they have smaller stomachs and wake up frequently because of hunger pangs.

Infant sleep cycles have 5 stages.
In stage 1 they get drowsy and start drifting off to sleep.
Stage 2 is the REM or active sleep phase.
In stage 3 they become less active and are in a light sleep.
Stages 4 and 5 are deep non-REM or quiet sleep phases where they don’t move much and it may be difficult to wake them.

As a parent, look out for signs — rubbing eyes, yawning, fussiness — that your baby is getting ready for sleep so you can soothe them to sleep more easily.

Newborn Sleep Cycle

We all know and understand how much life changes after a baby. Don’t worry, we also know not all the changes are always necessarily good. Sometimes it can be hard to recognize how much life has changed between feeling constantly exhausted. Though a newborn does spend a lot of time asleep, their sleep cycles are quite short, 40 minutes to an hour or two if you are lucky. And as their feeding routine is not yet established, you find yourself awake and tired. The good news is that your baby will gradually get into a sleep schedule making your life a lot easier.

The sleep schedule of your infant is dependent on their circadian clock, so adjusting it can be rather difficult. It is important to track your baby’s sleep patterns so you are better prepared to set a schedule and ensure they get enough sleep. It’s not just overnight sleep that is important, it’s also what happens during the day, and naps play a vital role in setting your baby’s sleep routine.

You can help your baby get into a sleep schedule faster to match your own by observing their behaviour and making some slight changes. You could keep your curtains open during the day so that the room is bright and cheerful. At night, switch off the lights and draw the curtains so that the room is quiet and dark. These minor changes will help your baby to gradually transition to day and night.

Additional things that you could do to help your newborn sleep is create a safe and comfortable sleep environment. Don’t put too many clothes on your baby or they might get too warm and keep the crib free of any loose clothes or sheets. Swaddles should be put just right or they might wake up frequently. Check their diaper before sleeping as a wet diaper can be very uncomfortable and keep them up at night. Your baby will also sleep better if well-fed.

During the early weeks, when babies spend most of their time asleep, their brains show high activity and they also dream. It is extremely important because as they mostly sleep and don’t socialise, dreaming helps their brain to grow. As they get older and more wakeful, they begin to play and socialise with you and get the required stimulation, and the dreaming reduces. More time is spent in quiet sleep during the day and night and the more time your baby spends awake, the less active sleep they will have during the day.

Baby Sleep Patterns From 3 to 6 Months

As your baby gets a bit older, it’s easier to recognise when they are ready to sleep. In the first 3 months, almost all babies will cry on waking and will need to be settled back to sleep. Naps become fewer and shorter and they begin to sleep for longer stretches at night. From 3 months, their quiet and active sleep patterns continue to mature. Sleep cycles remain at about an hour in length. Quiet sleep dominates the sleep cycle at the beginning of the night while in the early hours of the morning active sleep dominates the sleep cycle. At about 4 months, babies start learning to self-soothe. You can help this by gradually giving them less attention at night as that teaches them to self-soothe by sucking their thumb or rubbing a sheet.

Your success is also dependent on having realistic expectations, remember that an infants sleep pattern and cycles can be unique to your own environment. You are a very lucky parent or caregiver if your baby will sleep through a 10-12 hour sleep cycle. Without a strong understanding of how your baby’s sleep develops, you are only going to feel angry, frustrated and disappointed. With the right expectations and techniques, they will settle down in their sleep routine sooner than you think. Sleep routines don’t follow a one-size-fits-all pattern and if you want to get a better understanding, do follow the EuroKids website for the latest updates.

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