Understanding your baby’s sleep patterns
Like a baby
How much sleep your newborn needs
Sleep plays an incredible part in your child’s development. Learn about the impact of environmental factors on your baby’s sleep, and how you can encourage positive sleeping habits early on with the help of our baby sleep expert Chireal Shallow.
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One of the biggest adjustments for new parents is sleep, or essentially lack of it. Sleep deprivation goes hand in hand with parenthood; as a mum (or dad) with a newborn you’ll soon realise that the amount of sleep you get depends on your baby. You may want to curl up under your duvet, but your baby needs feeding, burping, changing, or even just a cuddle (or two) in the middle of the night. It may feel like your baby is awake more than they are asleep. But babies sleep, a lot! By the end of their first year, infants will have spent well over half their lives sleeping.1 And you’ll be glad they do, as sleep is associated with numerous aspects of baby brain development, and can significantly impact behaviour, mental health and well-being.1
What role does sleep play for a newborn?
Sleep is often considered a passive activity, when in fact it is an active process. Despite the limited waking hours available for your baby to explore, there’s still plenty going on while they sleep. Infant sleep differs from adults, and the unique characteristics of your newborn’s sleep may promote learning.2 Your baby’s brain is developing and maturing, preparing them to process and explore the environment.2 Research has shown that babies learn and process responses to the world around them whilst sleeping.2
Sleep plays a role in the formation of memories, consolidating material that your baby saw and heard in the short time they may have been awake.2
What is ‘normal’ sleep?
You may think your baby never sleeps; or maybe they sleep too much just at the wrong times (those of you with night owls will exhaustedly agree). But let’s consider what ‘normal’ sleep is. Babies sleep patterns develop very quickly over their first twelve months of life.1 Newborns can sleep for up to 18 hours a day2, with night sleep duration increasing steadily. After a few weeks you will find your baby is awake for longer periods, and consequently sleeps for longer episodes,3 with night wakings also reducing. 1 However all babies differ. Some sleep more than others. Some for longer periods, others in shorter bursts. Some babies sleep through the night early on, while others take much longer (if they get there at all).
It’s easy to consider sleep as an isolated behaviour – your baby is either awake or asleep. But there are different states of consciousness through which your baby cycles several times a day. Two are sleep states; babies spend 50% of their time in each of these states: 3,4
- Active Sleep (also known as REM [rapid eye movement] sleep): breathing becomes more regular, your baby may startle at some noises
- Deep Sleep (sometimes referred to as quiet sleep or Non-REM sleep): Baby lies quietly without moving; twitching and other movements stop
There are also waking or ‘active states’:4
- Drowsiness: Baby’s eyes start to close; and they begin to fall asleep
- Quiet Alert: Baby’s eyes open wide, their face is bright and body is quiet
- Active Alert: Their face and body move actively
- Crying: Baby cries, perhaps screams; their body moves in very sporadic ways
Learning about infant states and cues is important as it helps you become more aware and responsive to the subtleties of your baby’s sleep patterns.3
How do environmental factors affect your baby’s sleep?
Although there are general patterns of infant sleep, not all babies follow the same nocturnal example.
Studies have shown that sleep environment, mother-baby interaction, and feeding schedule can all impact the development of a baby’s sleep pattern.3 In addition, a carer’s temperament and stress levels are a key influence on a baby’s sleep. Negative temperament has been associated with sleep problems and night wakefulness, and maternal stress linked to day sleep duration, suggesting infant and maternal characteristics affect sleep differently.1
Establishing positive sleeping habits
With sleep evading you, and exhaustion setting in, you may feel like you will never get a good night’s sleep again. But there are a number of behavioural interventions you can put in place to help establish positive sleeping habits in your baby, such as encouraging your baby to self-soothe. The ability to self-soothe when falling asleep (settling to sleep at the beginning of the night and getting back to sleep if they wake during the night) appears to be a key ingredient for the development of healthy sleep-wake patterns.5
Babies who self-soothe are generally considered to be better sleepers than those who consistently need assistance to make the wake-sleep transition.5 Self-soothing can be supported by establishing a sleep routine for your baby, particularly daytime sleep habits. Day time sleep is thought to improve night time sleep and development of routines for sleep time, feeding, and bathing.3
It helps to be consistent with where you settle your baby. Whether in a crib, cot or co-sleeping with your child in your bed, providing a sense of permanence in where your baby sleeps will encourage a better sleep pattern.3
Also consider swaddling. Though not all babies enjoy being swaddled (snugly wrapping up your baby to help them feel safe and secure), there are benefits in doing so. Research studies have found that swaddling can calm and soothe babies, help them sleep, and help babies settle on their backs, preventing them turning on to their front or getting their heads covered by bedding.6,7
If you’ve ever heard the old adage ‘sleeping like a baby’ you might question its relevance, given how unsettled newborns can be in the first few months of life. For newborns, sleep occurs around the clock, with the sleep-wake cycle dependent on the need to be fed, changed and cuddled. But sleep isn’t just a passive activity. You may think your baby is dreaming about their next feed, but clearly there is a lot going on inside their head whilst they sleep.
Written by: Chireal Shallow
Chireal Shallow is a psychologist and psychotherapist. She
established the Baby Sleep Clinic in 2004 and has supported high
profile clients, including royalty. Her insight, expertise and
approachability have earned her multiple media appearances and
high-profile partnerships. Having worked for the NHS since 2008,
Chireal has a wealth of experience in the private and public sector.
Chireal single-handedly raised her own 4 children, and is sensitive
to the needs of families, lending a compassionate, judgement-free
ear to her clients.
1. Sporando BM & Reeb-Sutherland BC. Associations between infant temperament, maternal stress, and infants' sleep across the first year of life. Infant Behav Dev 2015;39:131–135.
2. Tarullo AR, Balsam PD, Fifer WP. Sleep and infant learning. Infant and Child Development 2011. Vol 20(1); 35–46. Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/icd.685/abstract Last accessed March 2016
3. Rosen L. Infant sleep and eating. JOGNN 2008;37:706–714.
4. States of Consciousness in Newborns. HealthChildren.Org. Available at: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/Pages/States-of-Consciousness-in-Newborns.aspxLast accessed March 2016
5. Burnham MM, Goodlin-Jones B, Gaylor E et al. Night time sleep-wake patterns and self-soothing from birth to one year of age: a longitudinal intervention study. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2002 Sep; 43(6): 713–725. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201415/. Last accessed March 2016
6. Infant sleep information source (ISIS). Available at https://www.isisonline.org.uk/sleep_health/sleep_aids/swaddling/;Last accessed March 2016.
7. van Sleuwen BE, Engelberts AC, Boere-Boonekamp M et al. Swaddling: A Systematic Review. Pediatrics. 2007, 120 (4). Available at: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/120/4/e1097 Last accessed March 2016.
Last reviewed: 30th June 2016
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