Newborn Babies Have Day/Night Confusion
Have you ever heard the old wives’ tale about turning your baby around to fix their upside-down days and nights? While turning your baby won’t do a thing to help them sleep at night, those old wives were onto something when it comes to babies and sleep.
Research has discovered that newborns don’t have fully developed circadian rhythms, the internal 24 hours clocks that regulate activities like sleep. It takes newborns anywhere from 1-3 months for these rhythms to start functioning properly. You can help this develop by exposing your baby to natural light during the day and keeping things dark and quiet at night.
Baby Sleep Cycles Are Different
Babies may be tiny humans, but they have sleep cycles that seem like they’re from an entirely different species (a world where solid sleep is non-existent). Adults transition throughout stages of REM (active) and non-REM (quiet) sleep in 90-minute cycles and usually enter into deeper sleep quickly after first falling asleep. In total, most adults spend 20-25% of the night in REM sleep.
Babies have shorter sleep cycles of about 50-60 minutes, spending 50% of total sleep in the lighter REM stage when they are more easily aroused. Both of these factors give babies more opportunities to wake during sleep. They also take up to 20 minutes to reach deep sleep, which explains why they can be disturbed so readily in those first few minutes.
Night Wakings Are Important
One of the hardest aspects of parenting a newborn is being woken every few hours overnight. While that night waking may feel lethal to parents at 2 AM, for babies — their survival depends on it. Babies require extra care during those first few months of life but have little ability to communicate those needs.
Besides needing to feed every 3-4 hours, babies may wake because they are in pain, need a diaper change, are too hot/cold, have trouble breathing, etc. Scientists believe that having shorter cycles of lighter sleep is actually a survival skill for babies. So the next time your friend brags about their child sleeping through the night, you can brag about your baby’s superior skills too (survival of the fittest)!
Babies Learn and Grow in Their Sleep (So They Need Lots of It)
Newborns spend 16-18 hours per day sleeping and this only decreases by 2-3 hours over the first year of life. If babies spend so much time sleeping, then why do parents always seem so tired? The problem is, most of that sleep happens in short spurts in the beginning, so parents spend a great deal of time trying to help their tiny tots fall back to sleep.
We talked earlier about how infants spend 50% of total sleep time in the lighter REM stages. Scientists have uncovered that REM cycles are when learning and brain development takes place as input from waking hours is consolidated into memories. Over the first 3 months of life, the infant’s brain grows by 1% each day which may explain why they spend so much time in the REM stage.
Need help? Check out our full parents guide to childs sleep.
All Babies Are Different
Some babies start crawling around 6 months while others may go straight to walking around a year. No two children develop exactly the same way, and it’s no different when it comes to sleep. There are many factors that influence sleep so it’s important not to compare your child to others.
Self-soothing (the amazing skill when babies learn to calm themselves) only starts to develop around 6 months of age. Up until that point, most babies wake frequently and have trouble settling themselves back to sleep. Just like other skills, this one may come sooner or later depending on the baby.
Sleep Regressions Are Normal
Sleep regressions, every parent’s worst nightmare. After months of patiently waiting for those self-soothing skills to kick in, your baby starts sleeping for longer stretches and you start to feel like there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. Then, all of a sudden, the unthinkable happens — your bundle of joy goes to bed one night and seems to have forgotten how to sleep.
Scientists have discovered that infant development doesn’t happen in one straight line. This means that there are temporary regressions when children are learning new skills like crawling, walking, talking, etc. Common times for these to occur are 4 months (big growth spurt), 8 months (crawling), 10 months (pulling to stand), and 12 months (walking).
Want to know more? Find out everything about baby sleep regression here.
Like Babies, Sleep Matures with Time
Is she a good sleeper? Is he sleeping through the night? These are the most common questions parents get. But the reality is, there is no good or bad when it comes to babies and sleep. Light sleep and night wakings are a healthy part of development and are necessary for survival.
Just like your baby will eventually learn to crawl, walk, talk, and read, they’ll also learn to sleep. And just like other skills, you can’t force this one to develop faster than your baby is ready for. What you can do is promote healthy sleep by encouraging age-appropriate naps, establishing an early bedtime, maintaining a bedtime routine, and creating a pattern to help your baby return back to sleep.
And when all else fails, give it time. Those sleepless nights can feel like they’ll last for an eternity, but the truth is — they’ll be gone before you know it. Ask any parent with grown children and they’ll tell you that the best thing you can do is enjoy this season before it’s gone. Hold your baby a little closer, rock them a little longer, and give them thousands of tiny kisses.
Jill Zwarensteyn is the editor for Sleep Advisor and a certified sleep science coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.
Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.
She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.