Calling all new parents! We’re pretty sure you must have Googled the words ‘baby sleep cycles’ by now. Perhaps this is how you’ve stumbled across this article. As always, we’re on hand to help. We called on The Mummy & Daddy Sleep Consultants to explain precisely what’s happening and how much a baby’s development affects the amount of sleep you’re all getting!
Learning about your baby’s sleep cycle
Our precious little babies are constantly developing and growing – physically and cognitively – and sleep is a hugely important part of this development. So much so that we can actually see regression in our baby’s sleep during big developmental stages – more on sleep regressions later!
It’s not just growth spurts or physical leaps. During night sleep, our babies advance their cognitive development in memory, language and motor skills. Isn’t that amazing?
But very few people understand how baby sleep works, and knowing how a baby sleeps can help you understand how it can also go wrong. So what is the science behind a baby’s sleep? And how can we use that knowledge to help our baby’s sleep patterns, day and night?
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The science bit!
Firstly, there are two parts to a baby’s sleep cycle. There’s the Wake-Sleep Cycle and then there is the Sleep Cycle itself. Not confusing at all!
The Wake-Sleep Cycle
Let’s start with the Wake-Sleep Cycle.
Also known as a circadian rhythm, it’s basically a ‘master clock’ in our brain that ticks through a 24-hour cycle. It is highly sensitive to light, which helps us differentiate between day and night. Other cues such as temperature, noise and activity can also affect this master clock.
This is why it’s important to have our little one’s sleep environment as dark as possible and make sure they are exposed to natural light during the day. Exposure to light for a baby sends signals to the body which create alertness to help the child stay awake. As night approaches, the master clock begins producing a sleep hormone, repeating this throughout the night to help our babies sleep better and longer. Aren’t they amazing!?
For adults, this wake-sleep cycle is approximately 15-17 hours of daytime and 7-9 hours of night. Many of you reading this probably won’t remember the last time you had 7-8 hours of night sleep! But for your baby, the cycle is usually around 12 hours of daytime and 12 hours of nighttime.
The Sleep Cycle
Where the wake-sleep cycle focuses on day and night rhythm, the Sleep Cycle is what our babies do during those periods of sleeping.
There are 2 types of sleep – light sleep and deep sleep. As you’ll see from the diagram below, babies only have about 10mins of deep sleep in the middle of every 45 min cycle.
If your baby falls asleep in your arms and you try to put them into their cot straight away, there is a good chance they will wake because they’re not in a deep enough sleep. So next time, wait for 25 minutes before attempting the delicate transfer to the cot and you should be more successful.
Unfortunately, for some babies, this won’t necessarily increase stretches of sleep at night. If a baby falls asleep in your arms or bed, and then they wake up in a different place e.g. their cot, they can feel disorientated.
In between sleep cycles, all humans arouse/wake, albeit briefly, so most people don’t remember them at all. These ‘wakes’ during the night are completely normal, but it’s the inability to return to sleep after these wakes which can cause sleep problems for babies. And if a baby needs feeding, rocking or bouncing to get to sleep in the first place, they will likely need that same help to get back to sleep at some point(s) during the night when they wake.
When you’re ready, helping support your little one to sleep in their crib will build their confidence with their own sleep space, and they will start to connect their own sleep cycles without needing to come back into your arms.
Earlier we mentioned that so many big changes happen for a baby during their sleep. And because of this, many babies often go through sleep regression when a big milestone is reached.
A sleep regression can come in many different guises, but usually, it will include your baby suddenly staying awake at bedtime when they were previously able to settle to sleep themselves, or they may show signs of extreme fussiness around all sleep situations, including more wakings at night and shorter naps.
You might be reading this and thinking ‘has my baby been in a regression for six months?’. Sadly not. For some babies, where sleep is a challenge already, a regression may not even be recognisable to parents as it’s just like a normal day and night for them.
Your baby’s developmental milestones
Some of the big developmental milestones which lead to a sleep regression are:
- Growth Spurts
- Learning to roll, stand, crawl or walk
- Language development
- Separation anxiety
- Desire for independence
Though sleep regressions are mainly caused by physical or cognitive leaps, there are other things can lead to more challenges to your little one’s sleep:
What can you do about baby sleep regression?
There is absolutely nothing you can do to stop sleep regressions from happening – it’s usually a sign of your baby developing and that’s lovely to know. The key is understanding what you can do when a regression occurs. These include:
- Try to maintain your regular routine where possible, daytime and bedtime
- Keep them sleeping in their own space as much as possible rather than bringing them into your bed. Babies tend to like that a little too much, and getting them back in their own cot can be quite a challenge!
- Pay extra attention to your baby’s sleep cues and get them down for naps when they need one – overtiredness will make the regression period more difficult for all of you.
- If your baby suddenly starts crying in the middle of the night, give them a few minutes to fuss before you respond, you may find that they can self-soothe back to sleep. If you are worried about them, tend to them immediately of course.
Sleep regressions will happen to all babies, so the important part for a parent is finding that balance of supporting your baby through those big changes whilst trying not to let habits form that might hang around much longer than the regression does.
Article by Chris McFadden, The Mummy & Daddy Sleep Consultants
Credit: The Mummy & Daddy Sleep Consultants are renowned for their unique, gentle and fast-working approach to infant sleep. If you want to learn more about infant sleep, head to www.